At the time of writing, the Royal College of Nursing has announced that its members have voted to take strike action on a scale never seen before in its history. While the RCN represents around half a million nurses in the NHS, other health workers unions like UNISON, Unite and the GMB currently have ballots ongoing against the government’s latest pay insult.
During the pandemic, politicians led rounds of applause for healthcare workers, lauding them as heroes. Now, both Tory and Labour MPs display their true colours.
Why are nurses striking?
What the government is branding as a pay rise is actually a pay cut(!), and comes on top of a decade- long squeeze on NHS pay, which has seen the value of salaries reduce by around 20% in real terms and vacancies climb to record levels year on year.
Health Minister Steve Barclay has dismissed workers’ demands for an inflation-busting pay rise as unrealistic. Meanwhile, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has refused to support this democratic action by unions to push back against the cost of living crisis.
Is it all about pay?
Nobody ever became a healthcare worker to get rich. Years of wage suppression, combined with a lack of a coordinated fight back from trade unions have led to a dire situation in which hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers have voted with their feet.
Chronic short staffing is now the norm in many areas of the NHS. This, combined with the ongoing impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, has left healthcare workers struggling with burnout in a system which is on its knees. In every area of healthcare, there is more work to do with fewer staff to do it.
What about the patients?
During the pandemic, NHS workers demonstrated the flexibility of the system to change in order to meet the needs of patients at the time. This action was a powerful lesson, that nothing happens without workers. In the context of strikes across NHS services, this means that healthcare workers and their unions can and need to work to ensure life-and-limb cover. This means that while all non-emergency services stop, a skeleton service will need to be provided to protect patient safety.
No healthcare worker wants to risk the lives of those they’ve signed up to care for. The current shortage of workers across services is doing just that. Years of politely requesting pay increases in the hope it will reverse the exodus of staff have failed. To protect patients and the NHS, now is the time to take strike action.
What is the way forward?
While the overwhelming majority of nurses voted to strike, in some areas the turnout was not high enough to meet the anti-democratic thresholds introduced by the Tories in their last round of repressive anti-union legislation.
Although this will be a source of disappointment and frustration for many RCN members who have campaigned for action, it shows the need for coordinated grassroots organisation of trade unions in every NHS workplace.
In 176 different NHS organisations, RCN members have beaten the laws designed to prevent strike action. This shows what is possible. As ballots continue to run, if every healthcare worker who has spoken to their workmates about strike action in recent and coming weeks got active in their union, it would have a transformative effect.
The development of trade union organisation across services is essential for building the action needed to protect patients, staff and the NHS as a whole.