Within the next few weeks, the issue of NHS pay will be sharply back on the agenda. The NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) is due to make their recommendation on pay for England and Wales in “mid-June”. That will be followed by an offer from the government.
After 18 months of the Covid response which has stretched NHS workers to their limits, proved fatal for over 800, and left many more physically and mentally scarred, the offer will certainly bring disappointment and anger.
The immediate focus of campaigning is the well-timed day of action called by Keep Our NHS Public, Health Campaigns Together, NHS Workers Say No and NHS Staff Voices for Saturday 3 July: bit.ly/nhs-3j. There will be demonstrations in many areas of the country, focused on patient safety and an end to privatisation as well as pay justice.
It is possible that the offer will be raised from the measly 1% of the government’s submission to the PRB in March. NHS Providers have already said they have budgeted for 2.1%. But a slight increase would go nowhere near redressing the real-terms pay cuts in recent years of Tory government.
Since August 2010 average nurse real wages have fallen by 7.4%. At the top of pay bands the drop has been far higher. NHS workers need a pay rise that rewards them for their work during the pandemic, and also recognises historic pay freezes and addresses the 90,000 or so vacancies in the NHS, which punish workers and harm patient care. NHS workers need 15%!
All the NHS trade unions have put in claims that would represent significant pay rises. Unite and the GMB at 15%, the RCN at 12.5% and Unison, a flat rate of at least £2K. All the unions must react quickly to the offer when it comes and step up towards co-ordinated industrial action. We need a campaign that aims to challenge the government and win for members, not a token for the bureaucrats’ trade-union recruitment war.
The unions’ response to the 4% offer in Scotland (acceptance from Unison and Unite and passive rejection from GMB and RCN) should give all NHS workers a warning that we need to go beyond waiting for our unions to take the lead. Members should be pushing their trade unions by passing motions for immediate rejection of anything less than their claims and demanding co-ordinated ballots.
We need to organise within workplaces to convince members that winning is possible and that industrial action can be effective.
We should also be preparing the ground for challenges in the campaign, by organising cross union networks, and discussing tactics to circumvent the trade union laws such as disaggregated ballots in the biggest unions, Unison and RCN.
It is right that the 3 July protests also raise broader issues beyond pay. The long-term problems that existed in the NHS have only got worse during the pandemic — the social care crisis, workload and burnout, and waiting times all leave the NHS at breaking point. In addition, and in the midst of the epidemic, the government is driving through a far-reaching top-down reorganisation, through their White Paper, further embedding privatisation and removing local accountability. They continue to drive through lucrative contracts for the private sector, for example the corporate takeover of GP surgeries and the mass sell-off of patient data, without any public debate. The government have learned some serious lessons during the pandemic... that there are massive profits to be made for their class if they can command centralised change without scrutiny.
There is huge public support for the NHS and its staff which can be mobilised around pay. The time to fight is now.