WHY THIS NHS PAY DISPUTE MATTERS TO US ALL
The forthcoming NHS pay dispute is likely to involve up to 10 TUC and non-TUC affiliated unions taking some form of strike action, with all unions with members in the NHS involved in the wider campaign. At the time of writing, Unison, Unite, GMB and, significantly the Royal College of Midwives have already announced overwhelming majorities of members have voted for industrial action to take place on 13th October.
Other unions, including my own the Society of Radiographers, have also announced yes votes and will be joining the action at a later date.
The dispute will therefore involve a widespread coalition of NHS workers from porters to consultants including of course the radiographers, sonographers, mammographers and many others working in diagnostic imaging and radiotherapy represented by my own union. Although not unique it is unusual to find such a widespread coalition of workers, covering such a range of expertise, taking action over pay.
Union members working in the NHS, at all levels, fully understand what has happened to their pay in recent years. Our own calculations show that members pay rates have lost nearly 15% of their purchasing power over the last 5 years. A period during which members have suffered 4 pay freezes and one solitary pay increase of just 1%. It is no wonder they are angry but it is a tribute to their professionalism and sense of commitment to the community that they have put up with things for so long. In fact, if the Government had honoured the recommendation of the Independent Pay Review Body (IPRB) and granted the 1% increase they recommended this year then we probably wouldn’t be entering into a dispute now with member’s patience enduring for another year….just!
But the Government crossed a line by ignoring that recommendation and then informing the IPRB that it was not seeking a recommendation from them for next year, thus condemning NHS workers to yet another pay freeze.
What makes this dispute so important, however, is that this decision was not a tactical error on the part of a Government that had miscalculated the feeling among our members and those of other unions. Instead the decision is deeply ideologically and shows exactly what it is this government now wants to achieve on behalf of the people it represents.
Throughout UK post war history there has been a consensus around the idea that working people have a share in economic growth. There may be deep differences over how much of a share but no one has argued that the general population should not see improved standards of living as society creates wealth. When union negotiators over the years have achieved increases in pay that exceed the increase in prices they have been ensuring that generally working people can see their standard of living improve. And, as a result, throughout the post war period average earnings have increased more quickly than the Retail Prices Index.
This came to an abrupt halt with the banking crises and the subsequent austerity measures. By continuing to hold back NHS employees pay for at least the next two years it is clear that this government wants to break this link for good even as the economy improves. They are using the NHS to influence the economy as a whole, it is of course the biggest employer in the UK, by sending a message to all employers in both the public and private sectors to follow their lead and end the consensus that working people should share in the wealth created by seeing the purchasing power of their income improve over time. Instead, they are creating the environment where the owners of capital see a further disproportionate increase in their share of wealth created entirely at the expense of working people.
So this is a dispute that we have to win. Not just for our members, although we must not lose sight of the fact that this is their dispute, but for trade unionists across the country in all sectors, public and private. In fact, for everyone who believes an increasing unequal distribution of wealth is not only unfair but also bad economics, including the Governor of the Bank of England, who also seems to recognise that running an economy purely for the benefit of some and not for all, is inefficient. For our members and those on the left generally it is of course not only inefficient but deeply unfair and potentially harmful.
NHS employees will decide what sort of action this attack on them deserves and it will certainly include widespread strike action. In doing this they will exercise the same level of professional judgement they use every day of their working lives and will make decisions that will put the interests of patient first, contrary no doubt to the portrayal of their actions in some sections of the media. It is essential however that all in the labour movement recognise what is at stake.
Of course Britain needs a pay rise, but if Labour politicians seriously believe this, then they need to clearly demonstrate support for NHS workers in this dispute and make absolutely sure they are prepared to also show leadership on behalf of all working people by encouraging wages across the whole economy to grow faster than prices when elected returning to a consensus that has only recently been attacked and that even Margaret Thatcher couldn’t pull apart. Success in the forthcoming election depends on it.
Trade Union and Industrial Relations Manager
Society of Radiographers