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The cross-union campaign “NHS Workers Say No!” is organising a day of demonstrations on 12 September. (London: 11 a.m. from the BBC, Portland Place. Details for other cities here).
This follows a round of protests in many cities on 8 August, when NHS workers across the country came onto the streets to demand a pay rise, an earlier London street protest on 29 July, and workplace actions across the country.
The demand is that all NHS workers (including those contracted out) get a 15% pay rise. That does not fully make up for the loss in pay NHS workers have had over the last decade due to pay freezes. When taking inflation into account, NHS workers have lost 20% in real terms.
Pay is not the only issue for health workers, who have suffered great stress and danger during the pandemic and over many years of the NHS being run with cuts and privatisations on a just-scraping-by, nudging-full-capacity basis.
But pay is a national issue that can unite workers to organise together. Nurses and other health workers, especially the low paid and those on the top of their pay bands, have felt their pay drop over recent years. There is a direct link between pay and the other most immediate issues for many health workers — workload, stress and safety.
The NHS is about 100,000 workers short, including 43,000 nurses, even on official figures. This vacancy rate has a massive impact on day-to-day working, with, for example, qualified staff being moved around from ward to ward, to provide cover away from their speciality.
This pay campaign so far has been driven from the grass roots, by some workplace union branches and sometimes by hospital workers, especially nurses, who hadn’t even been particularly active in their union before. It has some nominal support from the Unite and GMB unions, but the officials of those unions have not done much to build the action, and anyway neither is especially strong in the NHS.
But to win, turning round the unions and getting the possibility of industrial action is crucial. The two biggest unions in the NHS, especially among nurses, are RCN and Unison.
The NHS unions do not always coordinate their pay demands. Each union submits “evidence” and demands to the official pay review body, which then makes a recommendation to the government, and the government ultimately decides on the pay award. Some years unions smaller in the NHS, such as Unite, have rejected the outcome, but been unable to challenge the bigger unions.
RCN is calling for a 12.5% rise, but has a long record, since 1916, of never striking (the notable recent exception being Northern Irish nurses in December 2019). Unison is demanding only £2,000 flat-rate increase (about 11% for Health Care Assistants, more like 5% for longer-serving nurses), apparently wanting to target their appeal to lower paid members.
Activists are given extra leverage in Unison by the fact that the union currently has a general secretary contest underway. The main left candidates, Paul Holmes and Hugo Pierre, are known to support the NHS pay campaign, but have said nothing about it in their platforms, which have been more targeted to Unison members in local government.
Unison health branches should call on these candidates to make NHS pay a key issue. If they did that, that would put pressure on Roger McKenzie (the more leftish of the two “union establishment” candidates) to do likewise.
So far the Labour Party has done little to support NHS workers. The Labour front bench has said nothing, and Labour MPs did not figure as speakers at the NHS demonstrations on 8 August. But local Labour decision-making meetings are resuming this month after nearly six months’ suspension for lockdown. Branches should call on MPs and the party to put out clear messages of support, and on MPs to join the demonstrations.
In France the government has already, in July, awarded an increase of 183 euros a months (about £2,000 a year) to all health workers. It has promised more pay rises, and to hire 15,000 new workers for hospitals. Not enough — French health workers have been on the streets demonstrating for more — but evidence of the public pressure on governments to move on these issues.
Public support for the NHS is enormous. Everyone knows that the NHS will continue to be a key service over the coming months, as the risk of further waves of Covid 19 remains high.
Even from a conservative point of view, the state requires a good health service right now. The government has increased, and knows it has to increase, public spending anyway.
The Tories won’t budge without pressure. If the campaign is continued on the streets, and taken into the unions and the Labour Party, we can produce that pressure.