Thousands of midwives, a significant proportion of the 50,000 in the UK, joined demonstrations across the country on 21 November, along with other birth workers and supporters.
They want more resources to improve overstretched maternity services, the working conditions of midwives, and the care they provide to mothers and babies. It is all part of the wider NHS squeeze.
The map of protests put together by the new March With Midwives social media group which called the action indicates there were at least 80, all over the UK. There were substantial turnouts even in places you might not expect, for instance 75 in Winchester (where they cheered Winchester Labour Party when it identified itself as backing the protest). Lots of younger midwives and birth workers.
These are workers’ protests, but not organised through the labour movement. Neither the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), the main union among midwives, nor Unison, nor any other health union promoted them, mobilised people or even sent representatives. In Leeds, some union branches took banners, but no health unions.
We must demand the organised labour movement stirs itself, makes links with midwives organising and actively supports future protests.
A socialist midwife who spoke to Solidarity said the protests seemed to be leading to a welcome stepping up of connections and organising among midwives and birth workers. The RCM, though affiliated to the TUC, is in some respects is more a professional body providing education and guidance than a trade union. In 2014 RCM members struck for the first time in its history, over pay, but that did not lead to many further struggles or a more lasting militant culture. Even compared to other unions, the RCM has been distinctly vague and tentative about fighting the government’s NHS pay offer. There is much work to be done there.
The comrade we spoke to stressed that while pay is an issue, the protests are about working conditions, staffing levels and growing national shortfall of midwives. She said they are inspired by a very positive consciousness of the connection between working conditions and the care provided to mothers and babies. What they currently lack is clear demands and perspective of mobilising the unions for a fight over these issues.
The crisis in maternity services is heavily connected to the wider emergency in the health service. Mobilising the labour movement for a serious fight over NHS pay and to defend and rebuild the health service will create better conditions for the midwives’ struggle.