By Kate Ahrens, UNISON activist
UNISON's Health Conference has accepted the proposals from the union leadership to recommend voting for the Agenda for Change pay system in a membership ballot to be held in May.
A day of the three-day long Conference was given over to debating the issue, which would see the biggest shake up in NHS pay since its foundation over 50 years ago.
A wide range of speakers from across the union spoke in opposition to the leadership recommendation and raised a host of problems with the new pay structure.
Firstly, it is tied to a three year pay deal which would mean rises of just 3.225% per year. With the increase in National Insurance contributions from this April, and inflation at 3.2%, that's a guaranteed pay cut before the new system even takes effect.
Secondly, the new system levels hours across the NHS at 37.5 hours per week. That would result in an increase in hours for thousands of workers who had previously won reductions to 36 and 35 hour weeks, with some on even less.
Thirdly the bottom band of the new pay system - which would be the new scale for most hospital porters, many other ancillary workers and also many admin and clerical workers - has a top rate of just £5.67, enshrining low pay and meaning that all those workers would be paid less than UNISON's claim for a minimum wage.
There were many, many other objections raised, not least the new and complex system for rewarding workers who work unsocial hours - which as well as being extremely difficult to administer, and confusing for workers to tell if they are being paid accurately, will result inevitably in night workers and part-time weekend workers losing out.
Even those sections of the workforce, like Ambulance Paramedics, who stand to see quite an uplift from their current poor level of pay were reticent about promoting the deal. Possibly because their colleagues in the Ambulance service - technicians, patient transport drivers and call centre operators - are all set to lose out.
Discontent with the package had already forced a move from the union leadership who, instead of recommending straightforward acceptance of the deal, were forced into creating a compromise "middle" choice. So they invented the concept of the two-stage balloting process -- an idea that the deal could be "trialled" for now, and then the poor aspects of it renegotiated prior to a new ballot on the whole deal next year.
Selling that idea relied on the union leadership's promises that they would indeed be able to renegotiate significant parts of the deal. Those promises look almost certain to be worthless. The point was made several times during the debate, but the lure of not having to make a decision yet proved too much for many delegates who seized the chance that the leadership had given them to avoid taking a firm stand against this very poor deal.
Unfortunately for UNISON's members, not only does the prospect for renegotiation look bleak, but the 10% pay deal is assuredly here to stay. As a result, despite the union's national recommendation, many health workers may well decide that this deal is not in their interests and vote against it.