NHS pay it’s time to stop playing partnership politics & deliver for workers – Gary Smith, GMB Scotland Secretary


“Trade union bureaucracies often remain wedded to models of partnership (whether industrial or political) when it is patently clear that they do not deliver for our members: financially, politically, or even ethically. We must now urgently reverse this.”

Gary Smith, GMB Scotland Secretary

Gary Smith, GMB Scotland Secretary writes:

It has often been argued by the Right-wing of the Labour Movement that trade unions are essentially pay bargainers and nothing more. This conveniently shuts off all discussion of the role of trade unions as the drivers of radical economic, political, and social change. It also plays to a somewhat elitist conception of trade union officers, pitching their supposedly greater insights and expertise against the gut instincts and lived experience of our army of activists. Within the GMB, this view was actively promoted, during the Cold War, by Professor Hugh Armstrong Clegg’s three studies of the union which emphasised the effectiveness of a managerial culture to work with employers and government in order to broker joint agreements that improved members’ pay and living conditions. This strategy bypassed industrial militancy and any consideration of politics beyond the financial backing and lobbying of the Labour Party.

While this approach might – just – have been defensible in the 1950s and ‘60s, on the grounds of political expediency and a cynical realpolitik, it clearly broke-down as a model after 1979 and has experienced a death “by a thousand cuts” over the course of 40 years of neoliberalism.

The surprise is that trade union bureaucracies often remain wedded to models of partnership (whether industrial or political) when it is patently clear that they do not deliver for our members: financially, politically, or even ethically.  We must now urgently reverse this. This model has led to unions becoming distant from workers and enabling gatekeepers to sit in positions of power in the movement – gatekeepers who are more interested in cosy relationships with employers and politicians than with the hard work of organising and delivering for the members. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown this problem into far starker relief. Our NHS and care sector workers bore the brunt of the health risk and did the lion’s share of the work in carrying the nation through its greatest peacetime crisis: saving lives, offering palliative care, and coping magnificently with every challenge that faced them. Yet, when it came to acknowledging their professionalism and sacrifice through pay talks: the hand-clapping stopped and an ideologically inspired austerity reasserted itself.

Billions of taxpayers money was found and pumped into the economy, through furlough payments to individuals and businesses. Millions more was thrown to the winds on dubious government procurement contracts. But those who had done the work, given the most, and saved the day would have to be grateful for what they were offered: in this case a paltry 1% pay rise.    

The moral economy suggests that this is wrong. The political economy of the trade unions should suggest that it is right to fight back against it, in order to guarantee our members a just renumeration for their essential and highly productive work.

Yet the response of the Labour Movement has been muted, at best. Called-out on the Andrew Marr Show, a halting and confused Lisa Nandy could only offer vague platitudes and a grudging commitment to a 2.1% pay increase. Peter Mandelson went one step further stating over the weekend that the “hard left factions attached to trade unions have got to go” and that party reform should be the new top priority for the Labour Party. The priority for all of us should be not just to protect workers but to win real gains for them and their families in the coming post-covid jobs crisis. That is the most important thing for trade unions to concentrate upon – and any politician of any party that wants to appeal to working people should keep this firmly in mind. We are not part of the problem: we are part of the solution, as it is our membership who do the difficult, often dangerous, but always hard work that produces the nation’s true wealth and safeguards its health, through Covid and beyond.

Lisa Nandy (the then foreign secretary) ignored – or was simply unaware of – the SNP government’s offer of a 4% pay rise to NHS workers across Scotland.  Such oversights or unwillingness to engage with what is really going on north of the border may well explain why Labour’s appeal in Scotland has waned so dramatically over recent years.

Last week I joined NHS workers on a demonstration on Glasgow Green, this is a huge and live issue for our members. GMB members and their families braved the cold and the driving rain to make their opposition to 4% (let alone 1-2%) known. Pauline, a community mental health nurse and GMB union rep, was there to make the point that:

“this 4% isn’t enough. It leaves newly qualified nurses with a pay cut after tax and pension contributions have been taken off. That just isn’t OK. We have fought for this country more than anybody and we need our pay correction, today”.

Despite a ground swell of support for the NHS15% campaign and huge public support for our NHS staff – politicians and employers still do not feel that they have got to make an offer of any more than a measly 1, 2 or even 4%. 

So, how have we got to this sorry state of affairs?

The Pay Review Body was established in 2018, as a means of ending collective bargaining and to effectively remove pay bargaining from the table. However, the ending of the last three-year pay agreements, on 1 April 2021, and the impact of Covid-19 have dramatically altered the situation. While the PRB has proved hesitant and played for time, saying that it will announce its recommendations later this month at the very earliest: the SNP government in Holyrood has broken ranks and bypassed the Pay Review Body, entirely, by placing a 4% offer on the table for hospitals and health trusts across Scotland. This has, at a stroke, restored national pay bargaining north of the border.

The clear signal is that the Pay Review Body has outlived its, limited, usefulness and is now dead in the water. Unions in the health sector – and the GMB’s 35,000 members – should now press for the restoration of full national pay bargaining. Pay needs to come back onto the table. If we really are wage brokers: it is high time to cut the cards and broker a fair deal. Our members will expect nothing less of us.

At present, the GMB has submitted a submission, or position statement to the PRB, asking for a 15% rise. This is not the same as a formal pay claim submitted to the employers. Yet, that will have to follow swiftly as Scottish members seem set to reject, outright, the 4% raise that has been offered to them. What is clear is that rank-and-file activists are setting the industrial and political pace, independent of Holyrood and Westminster, and that the union must be sure to support them and to give voice to their aspirations. 

Already the principle has been won for a return to national collective bargaining: a cornerstone of union strategies for growth and organising.

However, this is not just a matter for Scotland. Trade unionists should want to see every corner of the British Isles and the North of Ireland – each constituent nation, each health trust, and every workplace – offered the same opportunities, choice, and access to economic democracy. Our opponents often say that the Left wishes only to “level down” to the lowest common denominator of compromise and mediocrity: but this is our opportunity to make the case for “levelling up”, guaranteeing equal shares and equal opportunities for all of those who do the work: whether they are employed by the NHS in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, or in the hospital trusts at Barnsley, Sheffield, Plymouth, and Brighton & Sussex.

The NHS demonstrations held over the weekend and the rejection of the 4% are first steps along that road. When these are formalised through the pay demands that we will make to each and every NHS and care sector employer where we have membership, we will have at last staked a proper claim. We will, indeed, be “pay bargainers”: but without the legacy of failed managerialism and failed free market economics to bind us. The answers to winning for our members do not lie in playing politics and looking for the easy deal, but in doing what is right for the productive classes within our society, whom we represent.

Once we listen to our members again, and base our fight around their insights, struggles, and priorities, we will truly be a force to be reckoned with. 

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