It seems unlikely that health workers will get a pay rise without strikes or at least the threat of strikes. Other public sector workers have got small pay rises, but no public sector workers have got good pay rises. Millions of key workers - our colleagues who risked their health and lives working alongside us through the lockdown - still survive on poverty pay, without sick pay, annual leave, pensions or in many cases without even guaranteed hours.
The pandemic has revealed a division within the working class between unionised workers with fairly decent pay, terms and conditions, and largely un-unionised workers on low pay with very few rights. That one section of the workforce lacks basic rights is dangerous for everyone. When workers cannot afford to take time off work for fear of destitution (which is the situation for around 40% of the British workforce) then all of us are at greater risk of getting this deadly virus. This lesson was learnt very hard with tens of thousands of deaths in care homes, including dozens of young workers.
Included within the 40% of workers suffering super-exploitation are millions of British workers operate in the shadow economy: hand car washers, nail bar workers, and millions who work in sweatshop conditions for cash without employment rights. This is the unregulated wild west of modern capitalism. It accounts for 12% GDP in the UK and 60% of the global economy. The norm for capitalism in the 21st century is the sweatshop where workers have no rights or protection, no health and safety standards and poverty wages. A public health strategy based on social distancing and isolation can only fail in a world where the majority cannot afford to take time off work.
At the one pole is billions of super-exploited workers, at the other pole are a few thousand individuals owning unimaginable riches. This fact explains the other pandemic that is sweeping the globe in 2020: the pandemic in mental illness.
The pandemic in mental illness currently claims 25% of the UK adult population. A recent government survey found that about 1 in 5 people in the UK have thoughts of suicide. There has been no SAGE committee to investigate what is driving this pandemic, no international scientific effort to develop strategies for tackling this pandemic.
In fact there exists only one attempt by epidemiologists to understand the mental illness pandemic and that is the work collated by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in their book The Inner Level. They find that the rate of mental illness in a country corresponds the level of income inequality. It’s an astonishing scientific discovery that has remained largely unknown: unequal societies are psychologically toxic to human beings.
A 15% pay rise would cost about £8.7 billion. A large sum of money, but small change compared to the £126 billion owned by the UK’s ten richest families. A 15% pay rise is not just good for us> It would reduce the level of inequality in the UK and have beneficial impact on public health.
Our society is split between the bosses who reign largely unchallenged at work and in politics, and the workers who create all the wealth. But there is a split within the working-class between unionised workers with reasonable pay, terms and conditions and a growing number with no organisation, no rights, living one pay day from destitution. The pandemic shows we need a massive levelling up, both in the UK and internationally.
We need to register that over the last 40 years, with declining trade union membership and militancy, there has been a widening of inequality within the working class and a levelling-down. In the NHS over the past 10 years we have lost 20% of the value of our wages, and hundreds of thousands of workers have been outsourced from decent NHS jobs to super-exploiting private firms.
Directly employed unionised NHS workers are now struggling to make ends meet. At the start of the pandemic we were sent into life threatening situations without adequate protection. How much more attractive is the NHS to private business now that the wage bill is so much less? If current trends continue we will lose hard-won rights currently codified for in-house NHS workers in Agenda for Change and the upcoming economic crisis will be an excuse to further privatise and drive down working-class living standards.
But the reverse is also true. In a strange way the lockdown and pandemic have shown how dependent capitalist enterprise is upon workers turning up to work everyday. A few months of a partial work stoppage has created the worst economic crisis in human history. It shows that if we collectively refuse work, if we can organise a solid strike, then we have real power and can win our demands.
It is unrealistic to think that currently un-unionised low paid workers are going to take the lead in organising strikes. But solid and victorious strikes by already unionised workers, like NHS workers can inspire others.
In 1977-8 we saw a movement which started off with some of the highest-paid workers fighting against the Tories' pay limits. It rippled out until it generated the big "revolt of the lower-paid" in winter 1978-9. It has been over 40 years since the British working-class has won big victories through strike action. 40 years of defeats where workers have lost confidence in the idea that they have any power against the whims of the bosses. We can and must turn that around.
We are living through a time of multiple crises. The pandemic has created a global economic crisis on a scale unseen before in the history of capitalism. We are in completely uncharted economic territory. Coming on the heals of the economic crisis is the environmental crisis.
2020 was the year that scientists realised the the ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica are melting much faster than previously assumed. It is possible we will see one or two metres of sea level rise within the next few decades. Just half a metre rise would threaten 570 coastal cities including: Kolkata, Shanghai, New York, Dhaka, Tokyo, Lagos, Miami. Half a metre rise would displace hundreds of millions of people and destroy over $1 trillion in property values, including the world’s port infrastructure, seriously disrupting world trade.
We know some large sea-level rise will now happen, and there is no means of stopping it. The answer to all these crises is workers’ organisation, standing together to fight for our colllective interests as global civilisation unravels.
The point about this campaign for a pay rise is not simply to win some recognition for our work, to make it a bit easier to make ends meet at the end of the month. It’s also a chance to show that we won't just sit back and take whatever insults management and the government throw at us. It’s is an opportunity to unite the entire NHS workforce around a simple demand we can all agree on: more pay!
If we organise, stand together, and show we are prepared to strike then we can win. And our victory will not just be good for us, it will be a game changer, inspiring other workers to organise and fight for improvements in their workplaces. With the union organisation and power coming out of a pay victory, we can ensure that we are never again in a position where we are caring for patients without adequate PPE, that we have plans for the crises ahead.
We are already seeing strikes of outsourced workers in the NHS demanding Agenda for Change terms and conditions and insourcing. If NHS workers win a big pay dispute, how many other keyworkers might be inspired to organise and strike?
We might have the start of a reinvigorated trade union movement: a mass working-class movement with real power to challenge the rule of the bosses in politics and in the workplace. A mass movement of workers that can assert working-class interests, against the rule of profit, as we enter this period of escalating and overlapping global crises.
We will not win our pay campaign without strikes or at least the threat of strikes. And we will not get strikes without a mass demonstration that health workers are willing to get out on the streets in their spare time and protest. The union leadership has no appetite for strikes and believes that their is no appetite for strikes among health workers. We need to prove them wrong and force them to represent our views.
Nurses are highly unionised and in recent years have won strikes in Northern Ireland, Australia, the Philippines and California. There is no reason it cannot happen here. The protests are an opportunity to prove to the union leaders that we are not on our knees as isolated individuals: we stand together as we stood together through the peak of the pandemic, looking after one another and our patients through those long weeks while the boss class was safely tucked away in the safety of their private residences.
It’s time we stood up for ourselves. The protests this year are an opportunity we have not had for many years. Thousands of health workers are getting organised and are taking to the streets. If we can turn those thousands into tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, then victory is within grasp.
Either the protests will attract more and more health workers, will move the union leaderships into action and will build a mass movement that can pose a real challenge to government or they will lack support, wither away and we will face an emboldened government confident that NHS workers will take any amount of humiliation. We cannot afford to waste this opportunity.