“As both health disputes face a stalemate with no signs the government will improve its offer, it is necessary for the wider movement to organise around the unions strikes and give them additional solidarity to ensure they win.”
By Ben Folley, Labour Outlook
Industrial action in the NHS intensified last week as junior doctors dug in behind their pay demand, and members of the largest nursing union rejected a revised pay offer.
Junior doctors in the British Medical Association took four consecutive days of strike action as part of the union’s pay restoration campaign and it was announced that members of the Royal College of Nursing had voted to reject a revised pay offer from the Government after the union put it to a ballot.
That means around 50,000 BMA junior doctors and nearly 500,000 RCN members are involved in ongoing strike action whilst other unions still condemn long-running pay cuts.
Attempts to weaponise the dispute by the Conservatives, and claim it is causing excess deaths are falling flat due to the wider deterioration in the service caused by long-term underfunding for more than a decade.
This underfunding which has hit pay across the public sector, throughout that period, has been met by significant inflation this year, making the real terms pay cuts more acute for hard-pressed health staff. That UNISON members, have voted to accept the revised pay deal must reflect their members urgent need to secure additional income in the cost-of-living crisis.
The BMA has focused on framing its demand in terms of ‘pay restoration’ – a reasonable demand to get back to the value of pay they had before Conservative austerity took hold. Junior doctors are demanding a 35% pay increase to restore pay lost since 2008-9 under 13 years of Conservative Government and the last year of the previous Labour Government with the BMA says junior doctors have experienced a cut of more than 25% to their salaries since 2008. Alongside a deal that will restore lost pay, and also to agree on a mechanism with the Government to prevent any future declines against the cost of living and inflation.
They have also said they will accept a serious offer to kickstart face-to-face negotiations. Dr Vivek Trivedi, co-director of the junior doctors’ committee at the BMA, said, “All we’re asking for is a credible offer that shows us he’s serious, that we can start a path of negotiations to try to address the real-terms pay cut.” They have asked the Government to go to ACAS to deal with the impasse.
The RCN with half a million nurses and nursing support staff demanded a pay rise of the RPI inflation rate plus 5%, worth around a 19% increase, when they balloted for strike action last autumn. The Government offered an average of 5% and has since revised that to 5% plus a one-off payment for the year, which it was confirmed RCN members have rejected.
The impact of both disputes has been the cancellation of an estimated 250,000 hospital appointments during this week’s BMA strike, whilst 180,000 were cancelled during their strike of 13-15 March. Earlier strikes by the RCN in December, January and February saw reports of another 137,000 appointments.
The Government has sought to capitalise on the loss of appointments by painting health unions as ‘militant’, as Steve Barclay said last Monday, and that it was the ‘unrealistic’ nature of the pay demand that was preventing talks. The broader back drop is the Government continue to cut public sector pay across the board, and are seeking to drive through anti-strikes legislation as part of an wider attack on protest rights.
Despite the impact on individuals seeking health care, public opinion remains on the side of NHS workers.
A poll by IPSOS Mori this week showed 54% of Britons support strikes by junior doctors, while a quarter (24%) are opposed. And support was slightly higher only for strikes by nurses (60%) and ambulance workers (60%) with 22% opposing.
Delivering pay restoration should be a priority of any government. Funding it after a decade of austerity and poor economic growth will be a challenge. The IFS says offering an inflation-matching pay award to all public sector employees would cost around £18 billion. Increasing the pay of NHS staff may account for around £5-6 billion of that.
But the money is available. The freezing of income tax thresholds in the recent Budget shows a Conservative Government is prepared to seize significant additional taxation from those on lower incomes. A Labour Government should levy greater taxation on the accumulation of wealth.
As both health disputes face a stalemate with no signs the government will improve its offer, it is necessary for the wider movement to organise around the unions strikes and give them additional solidarity to ensure they win.
On top of workplace picketing, the junior doctors have organised mass rallies in central London, one on Whitehall during their March strikes and another in Trafalgar Square this week.
On Budget Day, strikes were coordinated by other unions, the PCS, the NEU, UCU with joint rallies in towns and cities.
Strike action should be supplemented by mass events that demonstrate the strength of support indicated in opinion polling.
Labour activists should discuss inviting RCN and BMA reps to CLP meetings as guest speakers and arranging solidarity visits to pickets, as well as submitting motions to Labour annual conference in support of inflation-proofed public sector pay rises.