As the backpay for the 3% pay award, due from April, arrived in the pockets of NHS workers this month, the simultaneous rise in cost of living reinforced how worthless it was. For many health workers the miserly 3% has also tipped us into the next pension bracket, meaning that our take-home pay each month is actually less than it was, and we owe our Trusts pension payments from April. Many of us are being told this will be taken out in one chunk next month, just before Christmas. This is the latest background to the ongoing dispute on NHS pay.
A decade of pay restraint, ever-increasing workloads, 100,000 NHS vacancies, 18 months of Covid, a rising mental health crisis amongst workers, and the whole service reaching breaking point could be a trigger for the health unions to get their act together and focus on a serious strategy to organise in workplaces. Unfortunately, they are remaining firmly sat on their hands.
Large majorities in all the main unions voted against the government’s pay award, although on relatively low turnouts. Members are still waiting for the next steps. The GMB has announced they will be moving to formal ballot (after a 93% no vote) but no date has been announced. Unison (80% against, on a 29% turnout) has announced a further indicative ballot. Again, no date set. The RCN (91.7% against, on a 25.4% turnout) is still considering its position. In Scotland the RCN is holding a second indicative ballot from 12 October to 8 November. Unite (90% against, 25% turnout) talks about a “a campaign of targeted industrial action and days of protest”, but without detail.
Unison’s local government group, which has a left majority, has decided to move to formal ballot on a 79% vote against their employers’ pay offer, on a 20% turnout. Unison now has a left National Executive, but its health service group executive is still controlled by the right. Unison should co-ordinate these disputes. Holding formal ballots in both sectors would be a good start.
NHS workers need to take motions to our union branch meetings this month pushing for serious campaigns to mobilise members to vote in the forthcoming ballots. We need to spell out the ABCs of organising — members’ meetings, recruiting workplace reps to build the campaign, to form future industrial action committees, workplace walk-abouts, phone banking, using union data to effectively target workplaces and build turnout and working to convince members.
The different positions on the claim of the unions should not stand in the way of building cross-union campaigns. At branch and national level the health unions have to work together to build the campaign. If they are not prepared to do this cross-union rank and file organisation should ensure this unity is built in workplaces.
The dispute over pay in local government also gives us the opportunity to work across the public sector.