By Claire Laker-Mansfield
Strikes work. The Tories are in retreat. In December, when Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was asked why the Tories were refusing to negotiate with health unions on pay, he replied: “Of course, the health secretary wants to talk to the profession about how we can make the job better, how we can improve the NHS performance for everybody. But ultimately pay is decided by an independent pay body,”.Yet following determined action by nurses and ambulance workers, more than £4 billion has been mysteriously found to go towards an improved (yet still far from adequate) offer to NHS workers.
It is now clear that the leaderships of Unison, GMB and RCN will recommend union members vote for this deal when it is put to them, with Unite being the sole exception. Strikes were already suspended even before this potential deal had been put on the table, supposedly to allow the negotiations to take place. But far from being a moment to step back from taking action, now is the moment to step up the campaign – to press home the advantage. Junior doctors are among the most recent groups of workers to join the strike wave. This emphasises the opportunities to escalate workers’ action across the NHS and to press for an inflation-smashing pay rise for all through coordination and unity.
Government retreating, but NHS pay offer not enough
The new NHS ‘Agenda for Change’ pay offer is testament to the power and strength of workers’ collective action. But the detail of what it entails bears some scrutiny. After more than a decade of real-terms pay cuts, a health service decimated by austerity and a badly mishandled pandemic, staff are at breaking point. What workers are demanding is an inflation-busting pay rise – one which at least begins to reverse the overall decline in NHS workers’ living standards. While it is an improvement on the scandalously low starting point, this new offer categorically does not do this.
This is because the biggest headline figures it includes are non-consolidated one-off payments. For this year, including the originally offered flat rate ‘increase’ of around £1500, this will work out at a rise on last year of 10.75%. But as the majority of this is made up of ‘bonus payments’ the real scandal is what it asks workers to settle for in 2023-24. A 5% pay offer for that year means workers will earn less next year than they do this year. In the context of an ongoing cost of living crisis, this ‘deal’ must be rejected by workers.
As the Belfast-based nurse and RCN member Pat Lawlor put it today (speaking in a personal capacity):
“I am currently working in neonatal intensive care. And I have to say that the mood of the staff – the nursing, auxiliary, domestic and ancillary staff – is one of frustration. After more than ten years of austerity, the average health worker has seen a cut in their pay of somewhere between £5,000-£7,000 in real terms. What we were asking for and what we need to see is an inflation-busting pay rise. We need our unions, which balloted for strike action on the strength of workers not being prepared to accept any below inflation pay offers, to stand firm. We need our unions to refuse to accept this and to go out to the members with a view to rejecting this offer and to building a serious campaign. It was also disappointing that we had seen union leaders call off strike action in the run up to these negotiations. The strike action should have continued and gone ahead while the negotiations were unfolding.”
International Socialist Alternative members in the NHS will be campaigning over the coming days and weeks for workers to reject this offer and to fight for the combative strategy needed to win the pay rise health workers need and deserve. The attempt by some union leaders to prematurely end this dispute underlines the need for fighting rank-and-file workers to be organised independently. This is true not just in the health unions, but also across the union movement. The determined struggle of NHS staff has once again illustrated that strike action works. Now it is vital that we do not allow union leaders to sell workers short.