Above: the protest in Brighton
Mark Boothroyd, Unite branch secretary at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in London, and an organiser of the NHS pay protests on 8 August, talked with Sacha Ismail from Solidarity.
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The movement grew organically out of NHS workers’ anger at being excluded from a public-sector pay rise, after all the sacrifices made during Covid. Some workers set up a Facebook group called “NHS Workers Say No to Pay Inequality”; it hit 50,000 in a few days, it’s now 78,000, overwhelmingly NHS staff. The people who set it up called for demonstrations on 8 August: I think the call went out on 22 July.
My union branch, Unite at Guy’s & St Thomas’, has been very active on pay, and since we’re near Parliament and Downing Street we proposed calling a protest march there to build momentum. We managed to get about 1,000 people on 29 July, and there was impact in our hospitals too – we got lots of nurses involved as activists for the first time.
On 8 August there was a great response, I think a couple of thousand in London and similar in Cardiff and Edinburgh, with hundreds in cities and towns around the country. That was overwhelmingly health workers.
The plan is a day of action on 26 August, with rallies in NHS workplaces around the country. There’ll be other actions in the run up to that. Partly we’re aware infection rates will be rising again and there may be local lockdowns, so workplace actions are less risky. But also we want people to focus on building in the workplace. There should be things that others can do to support us on the day too.
Almost everyone organising this is a health worker, and we’ve got very few resources, so we need to pace ourselves, but we also want to keep up the momentum.
Which workers are involved, generally?
It’s being spearheaded by nurses. We are working hard to bring in all other groups of workers, with some success already. Physios and OTs are quite well organised. A lot of us work in A&Es, and through that we’ve made links with London ambulance crews. There’s a lot of sympathy and support from junior doctors and we are making links there too.
In terms of outsourced workers, one of our demands is that any pay rise applies to all NHS workers, however they’re employed. Some GMB activists who represent a group of outsourced cleaners have come to the demos. Everyone involved agrees workers should be brought in-house, and that’s something we may demand formally as the campaign develops.
The protests are also raising wider demands about defending the NHS, right?
We have a model motion which has a series of demands, including one influenced by Black Lives Matter, which is about addressing the racial pay gap. More broadly, the general vibe is left-wing, pro the Corbyn wing of Labour – and in any case some of the activists who set things up work in privatised services themselves. There are some who work for Virgin, where they’ve had our last pay rise delayed by a year while the corporation sits on the money. So there’s a good understanding of privatisation.
What’s your headline pay demand?
The campaign is demanding 15% for all NHS workers.
Unison, which generally represents the lower paid workers, is asking for a £2,000 flat rise, which would obviously benefit the low-paid more. They may also be making a sort of conservative calculation that there’s a limited pie and that a smaller pay rise means more money for jobs and therefore more subs money. The RCN is demanding 12.5%. It represents quite a lot of nurses on relatively high salaries; for them £2,000 could be 6% or even less. Unite the same, they represent a lot of technical staff in higher bands, though they haven’t put out a figure yet.
There was a poll on the NHS Workers Say No page, which asked if we want to demand more than the RCN, and the response was overwhelmingly yes. We’ve had a 20% real pay cut over the last decade so 15% relates to that and is actually pretty modest. We should not be watering down our initial demand any further than that.
What is the official union involvement?
Among the activists there’s a lot of frustration at the health unions and their inaction. We only know even the official union pay demands because they’ve been leaked! Unite has backed the protests at a London level. RCN has sat on the fence, saying it supports members going, but it can’t back because it’s not in dispute! Unison has simply refused to support us.
Most of the people who set up the campaign and are doing the core organising are solid union members, though not necessarily that active previously – but many of those engaging and organising locally aren’t. People are having the experience of joining and finding they don’t get union support. So we have to make the arguments to make sure people join and stay in and become active in the unions. Particularly because of the anti-union laws, but for other reasons too, getting the unions to move is key. A lot of new activists don’t understand why we can’t strike when we want to, and without being conservative we have to explain the barriers.
There’s a problem here, but overall it’s good that these workers are not willing to put up with the bureaucratism and conservatism of the unions and want to act without waiting for them. It’s that anger which will drive this forward.
How are you organising nationally?
We’re holding regular Zoom meetings of the leading activists. There’s a debate – who is our organising committee? I’m proposing it’s got to be the people who set up the Facebook page, plus trade unionists who are active in their branches, plus the people who’ve organised protests. That seems reasonable until we get some more representative structures. As it builds we will hopefully be able to develop a delegate structure.
The pandemic has massively changed how we organise – you don’t have to book a room, get train tickets sorted and so on, you can just set up your Zoom and there you go. There are disadvantages, but big advantages in terms of moving fast.
Are you making demands on the Labour Party?
Some local organisers did contact their Labour MPs to ask them to speak on 8 August, but I don’t think anything came of it. A couple of the Socialist Campaign Group MPs have made supportive statements. I do wonder if there’s a reticence because this is not organised through the unions officially, which is how Labour left MPs tend to relate to things. We absolutely need to demand support from Starmer. He’s being crap, saying nothing when there’s an open goal. Say we can’t expect anything from his leadership just means letting them off the hook.
People should absolutely raise in their CLPs, back our demands, see what they can organise, and call for their MPs and the national party to act.
For us, though, while the Labour Party is important, it’s secondary. The key thing is building up organisation in the workplace and translating that into organisation in the unions so we can get them to move.