NHS, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes

Govenment u-turn on FairPay. Victory for NHS staff?

Late on Tuesday the 27th of January the news started to come through that the planned 12 hour strike by NHS workers from 11 different heath unions had been postponed, in light of an improved offer on pay from Jeremy Hunt and the department for health.  Originally the majority of staff were to get nothing (as outlined in my previous post); and when union members struck, Hunt and the government refused to even meet union representatives, to negotiate.  Collective action by unionised workers (and the threat of continued and escalating action) brought the government to the negotiating table in the first place and forced from them this improved offer.  This is a remarkable achievement, but does it really represent victory for NHS staff?  These are the proposals outlined in Hunt’s letter to the unions:

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As its frames of reference are couched in the language of agenda for change pay points it may seem slightly confusing. Let me explain.

In essence the government is now offering to give all staff earning under £56,000 a 1% consolidated pay rise, with additional increases for the very lowest paid (around 5.6-2.2% for just over 200,000 staff).  This will be funded by freezing the normal incremental pay increase of staff paid over £40,500 (pay point 34). These staff still get the proposed 1% increase (worth less than the increment) up to staff paid £56,000 who get nothing.  This allows Hunt and the department of health to give the majority of staff a rase without increasing the budget or making good of his threat to sack 14,000 nurses.  From anecdotal evidence and my own experience at work those earning above £56,000 (band 8) were less likely to support the strike.  Nonetheless, this still alarms me as a move to pit the lower and higher paid staff against one another, instead of focusing on how its the governments policy itself that is attacking our working terms and conditions to pay for a crisis we did least to create. Finally the government wants to cap redundancy payments; and makes a lukewarm commitment to continue to use the Pay Review Board (who’s recommendations it ignored precipitating the whole dispute) to increase NHS pay in the future.

To some extent the offer addresses (in part) most of the core demands our unions balloted us to strike for.  These were primarily to implement the suggestion of the Pay Review Board to give all staff a 1% cost of living pay rise; to pay the living wage as a minimum; and to restore the value of NHS pay to pre-recession levels in the future. These are very modest demands and it is ridiculous that it required two four hour strikes and the threat of further twelve and twenty-four hour strikes (as well as lots of lobbying and action shot of a strike) to get an offer that even starts to address them.  In Wales where a Tory party ideologically committed to austerity isn’t in power none of this was necessary.

CSP assistant director Peter Finch succinctly surmised the offer:

“For the vast majority this new offer represents a better deal than originally proposed by government.  There is no doubt the threat of further industrial action was a decisive factor in the decision by government to negotiate with the unions.  This still isn’t a great offer but for 2015/16 it does at least provide a consolidated increase, which means it is pensionable and permanent. It does also re-affirm a commitment to the pay review body.”

The 1% goes nowhere near to mitigating the undermining of our pay by inflation since the recession (by about 10-16%). It doesn’t come into effect till the next financial year (conceding another cut against inflation to NHS pay for this year).  It also doesn’t address the increased workload brought about by the current government’s policies – the loss of 35,000 staff since 2010 and a 10% increase in patient numbers (as cuts to community care force more people into hospitals).  Worst of all there is no mention of the governments recent announcement that it plans to cut unsocial hours payments (additional pay for weekend or night shift) by either reducing the amount of hours classed as unsocial, or the value of these hours (or both).  For me, the extra token few pence an hour this offer would give me personally would be taken away many times over if these proposals for unsocial hours go ahead. We could ballot for strike action again once the government makes concrete plans over unsocial hours payments, but this could lose all of the momentum our actions have built up so far.  Furthermore strikes are most effective right now just before the general election as they focus attention onto the NHS (where the majority of people disagree with the Coalition policy).  It was the embarrassment caused to the government by our first two short strikes and the prospect of a 9am-9pm stoppage in January (and 24 hours in Feburary) that most likely caused the governments u-turn on pay. Waiting to see how bad the governments final plans for unsocial hours will be and then balloting loses vital time and could delay action past when it will be effective.  We need to push for the government to scrap these plans now whilst the influence of our actions is highest and we have the best chances of success. For these reasons I will be voting to reject the offer.  Securing this government u-turn on pay is a victory; but put against all the other attacks to our pay and conditions so far, and the looming threat over unsocial hours, it is insignificant.

I’ll leave you with the words of some of the other health unions that highlight some of the major problems NHS staff are facing that this offer does nothing to address. Though they are talking about nurses or midwifes in particular their comments describe the situation for almost all staff

Dr Peter Carter, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN said of the offer: “This is a positive start, but there is more to be done. The Government must not let today’s breakthrough go to waste by ignoring the immense pressure and stress NHS staff are under because of chronic understaffing. The only solution to the recruitment crisis which is hammering staff morale and patient care is a sensible long-term workforce strategy with fair pay at its core.

Cathy Warwick of the RCM: “Midwives are caring people who work long hours to give excellent care to women and their babies, often working beyond their shift and through their breaks.

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