The Socialist 19 March 2014 |
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Smash the pay freeze
Organise for strike action now
Adrian O'Malley, Unison Health Service Group Executive (SGE), Yorkshire and Humberside, personal capacity
Tory Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has declared war on NHS workers. He has decided not to award a 1% ‘cost of living’ pay rise to around half of NHS England staff this year. Next year, a similar number of staff will again be denied the ‘cost of living’ rise (see below for more details).
The announcement was greeted with anger but hardly surprise by NHS workers who have grown to expect the worst from the Con-Dem government. The main question I have been asked is: "what are we going to do about it?"
Workers in Mid Yorkshire Health Trust demonstrated their determination to fight back last year when they took nine days of strike action.
After being threatened with pay cuts and compulsory redundancies, the admin and clerical staff won an improved pay and job protection deal through this action.
Public sector unions Unite and GMB responded to the latest pay news by saying they will ballot for strike action.
Even the no strike RCN has murmured that it may lift its strike ban, arguing that nurses have lost over £2,000 in real terms since 2009.
Members of the biggest NHS union Unison, who were looking for a fighting response from our leaders, were left disappointed.
Head of Health Christine McAnea merely said: "we will be talking to our members about how we respond."
But four years of below-inflation pay rises have resulted in a 10% pay cut in real terms. The squeeze on pay is compounded by the third year of increased pension contributions which will gobble up 3% of the paltry 1% rise.
Added to the 3% "efficiency savings", ie cuts, in NHS budgets and staffing, this means that NHS staff are working harder every year for less money.
At the Unison national conference in 2012, general secretary Dave Prentis proclaimed to rousing support that the union will "smash the pay freeze".
Two years later we are still waiting for action and our wages are falling further behind the cost of living.
Unison has got to take a lead and announce a strike ballot of its 500,000 members in the NHS alongside our local government and higher education members who are also in dispute with their employers over the pay freeze.
Unison's health SGE meets on 2 April. The SGE must make a stand and recommend strike action to the union's health conference which starts on 14 April.
The conference should become the launching pad for the strike ballot which could smash the pay freeze.
URGENT: Prepare for strike to smash pay freeze
The hypocritical tributes from the mainstream press and capitalist politicians to Bob Crow and Tony Benn have grated on workers.
In contrast, ordinary people have remembered how it wasn't just that Bob and his union fought for their members, it was that they often won, ensuring that railworkers in particular have been able to protect their jobs and living standards.
This must be the approach with which the continuing pay freeze in the public sector is challenged by the unions.
There is absolute outrage that millions of workers will have their pay again pegged to 1% when RPI inflation is nearly 3% and even the government's preferred indicator, CPI, is almost double the pay offer.
Already, local government unions have put in a pay demand of £1 an hour across the board. As the RMT has shown, to win the unions must show they will fight for this.
All activists in the public sector must immediately bring motions to their union branches and shop stewards' committees calling for their unions to organise strike ballots to break the pay freeze. They should also call for the strike action to be coordinated.
These ballots must be linked to a campaign for a vote for strike action, involving mass meetings, including workplace meetings, so all members can have the opportunity to debate the strategy.
The recent tube strike showed that there would be massive public support for strike action to protect workers' living standards.
The heroic seven-day strike of low-paid porters and ancillary staff in Ealing hospital and also by care workers in Doncaster show the potential for coordinated action that could unite in-house NHS workers with those working for outsourced companies and agencies. Among the workers taking action the idea of a 24-hour strike is very popular.
In early 1988, 38 nurses took unofficial strike action in Manchester that ignited what became a mass movement to defend the NHS from Thatcher.
Months later, well over 150,000 people marched in London as well as countless local protests. There was a mood then for mass generalised action but the right-wing union leaders cut across it, as they did after the 2011 public sector pension strikes.
As Adrian O'Malley says above, "the Unison health conference should become the launch pad for the strike ballot which could smash the pay freeze". That means activists preparing the ground now.
The campaign can also be fought in the vital elections in PCS, NUT, Unite as well as Unison. Members should vote for candidates who support a fighting strategy.
As the 2015 general election nears, some union leaders have argued that joint strike action should be put on the back burner in the hope of a Labour government.
Yet Labour leader Miliband agrees with the pay freeze. Ed Balls is "daunted" by the prospect of becoming chancellor in a Labour government continuing Tory austerity but undaunted in committing to maintaining the pay freeze.
Mass strike action now, up to and including a 24-hour general strike, would shatter the lull that is allowing the cuts consensus to dominate the political mainstream.
This yet again shows why the unions also need to urgently discuss launching a new mass political vehicle that inscribes opposition to austerity on its banner. Now is the time to strike.
Progression pay under threat in NHS
Under Hunt's plans, NHS staff on the top pay point for their band will get a below-inflation 1% pay award in 2014-15 and 1% in 2015-16. But this is not raising wages by 1% in either year. It will be paid separately, alongside their salary, and because it is 'unconsolidated' it will not raise overtime or shift pay and will not count towards pensionable pay either.
But, it will be taxable and student loan repayments will be deducted from it! This will do little to address the rising 'cost of living' which it is supposed to.
Staff who have not yet reached the top pay point for their pay band will not even get this miserable insult.
They will receive incremental pay, but already veiled threats are being made about increments being awarded in future on the basis of management interviews, 'target-based appraisals' etc.
It's not hard to imagine what that will be like in the era of cost-cutting at all opportunities.
Trying to blackmail the unions into accepting real-terms pay cuts, the government says that it will 'consolidate' the 'cost of living' awards in 2015-16 - but only if the unions agree to staff foregoing incremental pay rises, and negotiating away other contractual entitlements.
This is trying to force a real-terms pay cut on all NHS staff in a divisive way, with an agenda of cutting costs and devaluing the pay bands, making it cheaper to privatise and cut jobs.
In Scotland, the 1% is being given to all staff this year. In Wales, it appears negotiations are being offered by the employers, but on the basis of the reduced pay budget which Hunt's attacks are founded on.