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Enough’s enough

10/26/2014

NHS workers strike in London over pay increase dispute

It’s just gone half past seven on a wet Monday morning and whilst it’s not exactly Cortonwood, Markham Main or Orgreave it’s a picket line nonetheless; a group of forty or fifty of us huddled together at the entrance to the central London hospital where we work. One of the hospital Trust’s Board members scurries through the revolving doors, silent and avoiding eye contact with any of us on the picket line. A shame as this four hour stoppage from 7am to 11am isn’t a dispute with the Trust itself but with the government.

NHS workers are striking for the first time in thirty two years about pay and specifically the Secretary of State for Health’s refusal to award a 1% pay rise, as recommended by an independent pay review body, on the grounds that it is “unaffordable”. Indeed, the day before the strike, Jeremy Hunt declared that the pay rise could only be afforded by the loss of fourteen thousand nursing jobs. The review body advised that all the NHS’s 1.1 million non-medical workforce should receive a 1% pay rise in 2014-15 but more than 650,000 staff will not receive this increase. For some of the lowest paid staff it amounts to as little as £143 for the year.

It is estimated that a 1% pay rise for all the health service’s 1.1 million non-medical workforce would cost in the region of £500 million with an additional £700 million required to fund annual incremental pay awards. Since the Health and Social Care Act was enabled in 2012 the ongoing privatisation of services has, so far, stripped more than a billion pounds out of the health service in the form of profits to shareholders. Similarly the Private Finance Initiative continues to leech hundreds of millions from the health service each year and expenditure on management consultants continues apace. It’s clear that the questioning of the affordability of a pay rise for NHS staff is merely a smokescreen for a wider ideological assault on the health service.

There are representatives from three unions on the picket line including a few of us from Unison, the NHS’s largest union. A member of the Fire Brigades Union, from the local fire station, also joins us in a wonderful gesture of solidarity. But the largest group, with their blue placards proclaiming “enough’s enough” are from the Royal College of Midwives, the union on strike for the first time in its history. Just how bad do things need to be for midwives to be on the picket line? The midwives are typically young, mostly in their twenties and thirties, no doubt a reflection of how difficult it can be for many young people to combine living and working in the nation’s capital in the face of cripplingly high rents and house prices. They’re predictably attracting a disproportionate amount of the attention of passers by.

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I’m handing out a stack of Unison leaflets that explain why we are on strike. Most people smile back and are happy to take a leaflet. Many offer a few words of support; “good on you for standing up to them”, “1% is nothing really is it, shame on the government” and “good luck”. On the congested road in front of the hospital passing cars, vans, lorries and buses toot their support.

Some passers by approach us to ask what’s going on, unaware of the strike or the reasons why it’s happening. It’s heartening to get the support of the public. No one wants to lose pay and go on strike but sometimes people have to make a stand. The leaflets explain the reasons for the strike something which the media, shamefully, appear reluctant to do; strikes are all too often portrayed as “bad for business” and those who go on strike lazily denounced as militants.

Again in the build up to this strike the media focus has been on the possible disruption to outpatient appointments (particularly ante-natal ones) and Monday morning theatre lists. The usual fear mongering that lives could be endangered by industrial action is nonsense given that trade unions always work with employers to ensure that emergency services are not compromised in any way by strike action. These are, of course, the very same newspapers, television and radio stations that have largely ignored the damage being inflicted on the NHS by the ongoing privatisation and fragmentation of services by this government.

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Industrial action in the NHS is always an emotive issue and politicians and NHS senior managers have often played on the reluctance of doctors, nurses and therapists to leave their patients under any circumstances. Which makes it more important for people like me, an NHS finance manager, to show support for the strike and to explain how it does matter, in a fair and civilised society, how much we pay those responsible for caring for our loved ones. Unlike most NHS workers, I can go strike without directly affecting patient care.

The real terms cuts in pay for many NHS staff over the last few years have meant that as many as twenty per cent of NHS staff have had to find second jobs to make ends meet according to a recent survey by Unison. A staggering figure. Fortunately I haven’t had to do that but the primary reason for me being on strike is to show solidarity with fellow NHS workers. We are in this together.

As the four hour stoppage ends with a countdown at 11am; “ten, nine, eight, seven….” and we return to work, I feel a sense of pride to have stood shoulder to shoulder with other NHS staff on the picket line and to have raised awareness amongst the general public of the reasons for this, largely unprecedented, industrial action. As we countdown to the next general election, less than two hundred days away, it’s clear that the very existence of the NHS, as we know it, is at stake. Enough’s enough. We must fight to save our NHS.

 

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