Tonight in Bristol we had a very inspiring rally against the Trade Union bill with some rousing speeches from people across the movement. I’d been asked to speak and had prepared a short piece on our NHS strike last year, but in the end there wasn’t time so I thought I’d put it on here so it didn’t go to waste.
My friends I wanted to speak tonight about the strike we had in the NHS over pay last winter, and how this draconian anti-democratic Trade Union bill would have effected it and me and my fellow NHS workers.
The NHS and its staff have taken a hammering since the Conservatives first got in with their Lib Dem enablers back in 2010. Putting aside the backdoor privatisation and the continual outsourcing of staff and services – which is undermining the very foundation of the NHS and is a huge drain on resources – times for NHS workers are bleak.
Between 2010-214 we lost around 35,000 NHS staff (including around 7000 front-line nurses). At the same time hospital usage is continually going up, by 10% between the winter of 2013 and 2014 alone. This is because cuts to social care and care in the community are forcing into hospitals more and more people who would have been kept well at home. Less and less staff are being asked to do more and more work. All the while our pensions have been attacked (we now pay in more each year, for more years, and get less out at the end) and we haven’t had an above inflation pay rise since the reckless gambling of the banks crashed the economy back in 2008, reducing real incomes by up to 10%.
Even with all this, it wasn’t until last winter that enough was enough and our unions felt able to go on strike after the government refused to give us a 1% pay rise (whilst MPs gave themselves an 11% raise). NHS workers are not militant by nature. This was the first national NHS strike since 1982. None of us got into this line of work to get rich (over 77,000 of us didn’t even get the living wage before the strike – me included – and many staff have had to resort to food banks to survive), but to care for people. This duty of care makes staff feel uneasy taking action, and is why unlike most strikes we try to cause as least disruption as possible to essential services.
As a result of our action the government came back to the negotiating table with a new offer. It wasn’t perfect (excluding staff at the top of the pay scale from the pay rise), but it did give a 1% rise to most staff, and staff on the bottom of the pay scale like me received a raise of up to 5%. A 5% raise hasn’t been revolutionary in my life, but it has had a significant impact on helping me cope with the continual spiralling cost of the basic necessities of life. This is one of the many reasons we need unions. They’re our voice at work and stand up for our interests across society.
If this bill had been in place our strike simply could not have happened. The new law puts a 50% minimum turnout threshold on all strike ballots. But because the NHS is an ‘essential’ public service a minimum of 40% of all members of the union must vote yes for the strike to go ahead. On a 50% turnout that would mean you’d need 80% of staff to vote yes. Almost impossible in an industry with over 1 million staff in vastly geographically dispersed workplaces.
Even if we did manage to strike, the new law would have allowed hospitals to replace us with agency staff, making action pointless (and possibly endangering lives of patients). This isn’t even the most ridiculous part of the bill, which would make picketers wear armbands (or face a £20,000 fine) and force unions to inform police of all strike related communications (including facebook and twitter) two weeks in advance (not to mention attacks on facility time, and the financial basis of unions).
This is a full on assault on our ability to organise to defend our interests at work and resist the Conservative austerity drive that is so impoverishing both our communities and our planet. It is a travesty, a partisan attack motivated only by the desire to clampdown on resistance to the Conservative attacks on ordinary people and our welfare state.
We have to unite to resist the passage of this bill, and should it become law, work together to defeat it. If this bill becomes law, we need to be prepared to break that law to defend our interests, and we need the whole movement to rally behind any union that does so. Only together can we overcome. Thank you for listening to me, and thank you all for coming out to support this demonstration this evening. You all give me hope that this isn’t over, and together we can win. Solidarity!