Last week’s Solidarity carried an article that argued “a four hour walk out [on 14 October] is a good tactic in the NHS [as a starting point]” and “It is vital that discussions on strike tactics are held at workplace level where union members know what action can be most effective”. I disagree.
Unison’s leadership are worried about low turnout and unnecessary deaths on a strike day. They have attempted to solve these problem by proposing a four-hour stoppage. They hope healthworkers will be more likely to strike for half a day and it will be less risky for patients.
But the four-hour tactic will be neither effective nor safe. The union wants to provide a bank holiday level of service on strike days. To achieve it Unison have tried to devolve responsibility for strike strategy to workplace level, arguing that the complexity of the NHS makes it impossible to set a blanket rule for exemptions from the strike. But there is a very simple blanket rule that could be applied.
Some NHS workers work seven day shift patterns, while others work 9-5 Monday to Friday. Whether you are a porter, a lab worker, a nurse or a domestic, if you usually work weekends then you are part of the life and limb service. The ideal we want is for all the 9-5ers to strike and all the life and limb workers to maintain the bank holiday level service. But the union’s strength is amongst the workers who work shifts, not the admin staff and managers who work 9-5.
The solution is that the union calls an all-out strike. Management have ultimate responsibility for the safe running of the wards. During the handover period management will have to assess where life and limb services are short staffed and redeploy 9-5er scabs to work in those areas. If the strike is particularly solid and the offices, outpatient clinics and community teams are shut down, then management can negotiate exemptions with pickets. Management can also negotiate if there is a particular shortage of a skilled worker e.g. qualified nurses.
This approach will cause maximum disruption without compromising patient care. It will demonstrate the value of the lower grade shift workers in maintaining the service, be a huge boost to morale and help to build the union.
Many nurses still believe that it is illegal for nurses to strike and the leadership has done nothing to dispel this myth. It has failed to set out a clear strategy for safe but effective strike action in the NHS.
What Unison’s Service Group Executive decide to do will set the tone of the strike for all the other unions. A strong leadership would advocate the above strategy for strike days and set a rapidly escalating programme of strikes; we need to get this dispute over and done with before Christmas.