Over the last two months, NHS workers in Bristol and across England have staged two 4 hour strikes and action short of a strike over pay and conditions. The Bristol Green Party (and the Party in general) completely supports them in their efforts to convince the government to rethink its pay offer; and has been down to the picket lines to provide practical solidarity (and Solidari-Tea and coffee). The unions have announced their plans to escalate the dispute with further strikes in January and Feburary; the Bristol Green Party will continue to support them in their demands for fair pay. Well motivated and properly paid staff should be at the heart of all visions for a health service suitable for our society.
The NHS pay dispute has been caused by the government’s refusal to honour the (less than inflation) 1% pay rise recommended by the independent NHS pay review body. Instead the government proposes to give a 1% unconsolidated increase (meaning it doesn’t affect pensions, overtime or unsocial hours) only to those at the top of their pay band. This means 60% of all NHS staff (and 70% of nurses) won’t get a pay rise for at least another two years. NHS wages haven’t increased above inflation since 2009 (and have been frozen for the majority of that period). In the five years that have passed since 2009 this has resulted in a 10-16% decline in real wages against inflation. I can imagine for some, attempting to support a family on these wages to be extremely difficult. Especially as we enter the Christmas period. As wages have stagnated and the cost of living sored NHS workers (in tandem with ordinary people across society) have had to make significant cut backs to their lifestyles; this was highlighted by a recent UNISON survey. The survey found one in five NHS workers needed more than one job to make ends meet. 54% were overdrawn every month, two thirds have had to cut back on food, 51% have reduced their energy usage and 44% have cut back on transport. A massive 80% have had to cut back on holidays and 90% on leisure activities, leaving them with little opportunity to recuperate from stressful jobs with long hours.
Staff are already pushed nearly to breaking point as a result of continued attacks to their terms and conditions. To save cash and meet austerity ‘efficiency savings’ (the £20 billion cut to NHS funding Cameron promised he wouldn’t make) large numbers of staff have been down banded (being pushed to a lower pay band to do the exact same job); ancillary staff and services have been outsourced; and there has been widespread reduction in staffing numbers – often replaced with lower paid and lower qualified agency staff (though never at the same rate). Over 35,000 NHS jobs have been lost since the coalition came to power. Staffing numbers are now critically low, and it falls to our remaining health workers to pick up the buck. Recent research carried out by the Income Data Services (IDS) found that 63% of staff are regularly working in excess of their contact hours. The main reason respondents say they work more than their contracted hours is because they feel ‘it is impossible to do their job to a satisfactory standard if they don’t’ and because staff want ‘to provide the best care they can for patients’. Over a third of respondents (36 per cent) reported that additional hours worked are all unpaid. No wonder NHS staff (even Midwifes who haven’t struck once in their entire 132 year history – until now) are striking after the latest insulting pay offer.
The government’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt has tried to justify the miserly pay offer by saying that to give all staff a 1% rise would mean having to sack 15,000 nurses. Strangely I can’t recall any government official outlining how many MPs are going to have to be made redundant so they can increase their pay by a massive 11%. It seems there’s always extra money to increase MPs pay, fund wars, bail out bankers, or cut taxes for the rich and corporations; but not to adequately pay the staff who run the country’s most important public services. Attacks on the pay and conditions of public sector workers and ordinary people as a part of austerity policies seems to be a deliberate attempt to shift the cost of the financial crisis (caused by the financial and political elite) onto those who did the least to cause it. Whilst ordinary people see their living standards decline with the most prolonged retraction of wages since the Victorian times, banker’s bonuses boom and the super-rich continue to amass record fortunes. Still we’re all in it together – apparently.
The strike, and picket is the most effect tool we have for making our voices heard. Many people will say that it doesn’t do anything. They may be right that it might not persuade the government to change its minds this time; but by striking we demonstrate just how angry we are about this insulting pay offer, and how we’re prepared to resist. This makes it much more likely that next time NHS pay comes up for review in 2016 the government will think twice about freezing it again. Furthermore, the chances of success are higher than many may think. It is over the NHS that the majority of people disagree with government policy the most, strike’s cause publicity and force the public’s attention onto the NHS. This is a massive embarrassment for the government so close to the general election, and makes them much more likely to come to the negotiating table and give us the fair and descent pay we all deserve. That is why I strongly encourage all of my fellow NHS workers to get involved in the campaign for fair pay, and to join the picket lines in the new year. Workers acting alone will not be enough to give us the NHS we deserve. We need workers, patients, and the wider community all to come together to show our support for this most vital public service, and to broaden our struggles against poultry pay to include the much more alarming privatisation (see follow up article) that is undermining the very foundation of our NHS. There is no better place to do this than on the picket line.