NHS pay dispute from below – Online newsletter no.4 / 2021

The main healthcare unions have spent the last 6 weeks consulting their members on the 3% pay ‘rise’, which has now trickled into some workers’ September wage slip. While members who did vote overwhelmingly rejected the offer, across the board, turnout was very low – too low in all but some GMB Southern Region trusts to win a mandate for industrial action legally.

This was predictable. Even though staff are pissed off, they are not being spurred into self-activity, nor even actively demanding the union does something. Getting a higher turnout would have required an all- guns-blazing strategy of mobilisation from the unions, and there seemed to be only a few firecrackers going off!

From a Unite healthcare worker:

“Unite’s ‘Day of Action’ in August was a damp squib – we got one email a week beforehand asking us to organise a hospital protest but no reps responded. When I tried to push it with the regional officer, I was referred to the main rep who was on holiday. Other Unite members in other parts of the country were told it was more of an ‘online event’. Unite used an online balloting system, supposedly for the first time, meaning you had to wait for an email to appear from them in your inbox before you could click on a link to vote. When I didn’t receive mine, I had to chase up, and was told that because I didn’t tick on a certain mailing preference box when I signed up, the ballot email wasn’t sent out to me. The whole thing meant that if I didn’t have an active and proactive interest in knowing what was going on and wanting to vote, the whole thing would have slipped me by…”

From a Unison healthcare worker:

“At our branch we relied primarily on emailing and texting individual members to mobilise them to a ‘drop-in’ in a tent in the hospital car park. Not many people attended, perhaps a dozen on each of the three drop-in dates, out of a total workforce of nearly 9,000 and a Unison membership of over 2,000. Even perks like £5 canteen vouchers weren’t enough to get the punters in! Proposals to organise a joint-union protest rally in front of the hospital were rejected. It seemed that the RCN had the same problems at their stalls at a different, and remote corner of the hospital.”

From an RCN healthcare worker:

“…members’ events I’ve been to have been encouraging – nurses rallying outside hospitals. It was cool to see RCN and Unite nurses/members coming together for these. Some have also involved local lobby groups. Official union events have been more often organised with and for workers at specific trusts. So closed meetings inside hospitals, out of public view – with stalls set up for visiting heads (including reps from local government) to speak with members and answer questions – this put me off.

At (online) meetings I’ve found contributions from nurses involved in past actions helpful – particularly members who got involved with the Northern Ireland strikes in 2019. More recently there’s been celebration of voter turnout and response, stoking momentum – but to read/hear that members have “voted overwhelmingly against” 3% feels hard to reconcile with the 25% turnout, and how things feel at work. I’ve shared campaign materials where I’m based (in a community mental health team) and uptake has been supportive, but limited. There’s only a couple of nurses in the team active with a union, and only half the team are employed by the NHS (half work for the council/local authority) – so as yet, the pay campaign hasn’t felt the most shared, relevant thing we’ve had going on.

RCN have been less vocal than other unions about joined-up actions, but I think this could really help. Now unionised council-employed workers are beginning to ballot too, I’m hoping this leads to more discussions and ideas about ways we can support each other across the sectors”.

So what happens next? Only GMB is going ahead with a proper industrial ballot at this point. Despite not meeting the thresholds that would be needed to actually go on strike, all of the rest of the unions (aside from RCM) are pushing ahead with an indicative ballot for industrial action. This involves asking their members if they want to actually take industrial action – even though some of them already captured that data in their first ballot (Unison, Unite), or despite the fact that they could have asked in their first ballot (RCN). While unions might think they need all these ballots to ‘build momentum’, the more likely result is to lose it…And if we go on the efforts of their last ballot ‘engagement strategy’, there is nothing to indicate more people will vote this time round…

This article from a NHS trade unionist spells out why successful industrial action is unlikely under the current arrangements. Basically, in order to enforce a pay rise, we would need more coordinated action across the unions, which would mean common demands amongst a divided workforce – divisions that are perpetuated by the unions who are only interested in ‘their’ members. So where does that leave the huge anger amongst workers about the measly 3%?

Unite, with their new General Secretary, are making noises about ‘coordinated and targeted actions’ within the NHS. This is an attempt to ‘work with what’s there’ – which, in a workforce as divided as the NHS, seems like a pragmatic step forward, unlike the Royal College of Midwives, who seem to have given up the ghost entirely. We need real worker engagement – which will only happen if the unions are able to relinquish some control, for the full-timers to not worry about pissing off senior NHS managers, and foster a strategy towards worker self-activity that means that we can directly affect our work on a day-to-day level.

Pay rise? What pay rise?!

People have largely now been given the backdated ‘pay rise’, but many complain that they actually have less in their pocket. After inflation, a planned National Insurance increase, and rising energy bills, the 3% quickly disappears and we’re in a situation where we’re actually paying out more than before!

“My job role is a Clinical Specialist (Nurse)’ at AfC band 6. After tax, NI and pension contributions, the 3% raise amounts to about £50 more a month in take-home pay.”

“I’m a full time band 2 NHS housekeeper with one year’s experience and no student loan. I took home £1,256.4 per month last year, which has gone up to £1,285.03 this year – so an increase of £28.63 a month or about 2.3%.”

“…my pension rate was put up to the next band, which based on my new basic pay, would be incorrect and that’s taken pretty much all my back pay. This had all meant that my take home pay last month was roughly £200 less than normally is. A lot of my colleagues have had a similar thing happen…”

“I’m a band 2 housekeeper, I was on a ‘training wage’ i.e. for new starters before they get their care certificate, being paid 75% of my regular wage. I was expecting the 3% increase because I am a permanent NHS worker, doing the job as it’s supposed to be done, but didn’t get it. I rang up HR and they gave me some bull about how I wasn’t entitled to it…”

Bristol – Wages of arbitrariness

While so far the pay campaign has been fairly tame at our Trust wage divisions within the Trust start to surface. As a result of the national dispute about whether unsocial hour bonuses should be included into pay for annual leave or not it became apparent that workers’ conditions are very different within the same Trust, depending on where people work. In some departments and amongst some professional groups, such as porters, workers are able to work overtime on 1.5 pay rate, whereas in other departments workers are only given the option to work bank shifts on significantly lower rates. This is not an open dispute, it is still negotiated behind closed doors. A second wage division opened up between regular workers and those who are on training and apprentice contracts. The Trust decided to exclude them from the 3% pay increase and back dated payments, as the apprentices ‘already receive the statutory minimum wages’, which was increased last year. Apprentices and ‘trainees’, who largely do the same job as everyone else, apart from very occasional training sessions, are not too happy about this. Even Sodexo agreed to pay the 3% increase to outsourced workers in South Yorkshire!!

Thoughts of a midwife…

The gap between those that rejected the 3% pay offer and those that voted in favour of industrial action was the widest amongst Royal College of Midwives (RCM) members (95% compared to 54%). Why is this? Discontent seems to be at the highest recorded rate amongst all groups of NHS workers, at the same time that willingness to strike to enforce a higher wage does not. While any kind of patient care makes it difficult to contemplate strike action, the nature of midwifery means that timely responses are totally inflexible. If a woman is giving birth, not attending to her and risking the death of mother and baby is something no midwife wants to have on their conscience. What can be done instead? This is an open question that would need midwives to collectively discuss where and how they can wield some power – with no impact on mother and baby. Here is a report about how conditions have deteriorated for midwives over the last few years.

Berlin healthcare workers take back some control…

We translated this interview with a striking hospital worker in Berlin. This struggle has been rumbling for some years, with little to show for it as unions kept capitulating to re-start negotiations, even when they were in a position of strength. Then, the unions decided to get serious: they paid 40 organisers to mobilise for this strike. Thousands of supporters were on the picket line – which was a great feeling after lockdown – and there were coordinated actions across different groups of workers and hospitals. The delegate system the interviewee talks about is interesting and might give us some food for thought over here.

Interview with friend in the US

Here is an interesting interview with a nurse in California where they talk about the impacts of violence, capitalism, covid and conspiracies on their work, click here.



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