Nurses pay dispute update

This is how the BBC News summarised the situation regarding a pay rise for NHS workers on the 21st April:

“The 1% increase was recommended by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) for 2021-22. … On 9 March, the head of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens told a committee of MPs that the health service’s long-term plan – published in 2019 – assumed a 2.1% increase this year.”

9 Mar 2021

The NHS pay dispute has been going on now for nearly a year. The first wave of Covid-19 infections back in March 2020 made a lot of NHS workers angry. Hospitals were not prepared for a pandemic. There was not enough properly qualified staff to cope with a highly infectious and deadly disease. There were not enough critical care beds and equipment for the large numbers of very sick people who came into the hospital system. And there was not enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the workers who were coming into direct contact with Covid-19 patients. All of this contributed to the deaths of over 600 NHS workers. By the summer of 2020 the tempers of NHS workers were running high. With paid, union officers hiding at home, grassroots NHS union members and workers, many inspired by the agitation provided by Nurses United and NHS Pay 15, took matters into their own hands. Marches and protests were organised and a propaganda campaign was started.

A pay campaign involving public sector workers in caring professions is very difficult for labour organisers to manage. Caring professionals are often reluctant to take actions which inevitably affect the people whom they care for, especially if those actions are being taken in support of a “bread and butter” issue like pay. Moreover, organisers are only too aware of, first, the effects of a bosses’ narrative which states that public sector workers are pampered in comparison with other workers and, second, that public sympathy soon turns to public antipathy if the public is adversely affected by public sector worker actions. To win a public sector dispute one needs the support of the public. Whats more, many NHS workers were afraid that they would be discriminated against for speaking out by their managers and that they might lose their jobs during a period when unemployment was rising. Against the backdrop of a fickle public and a divided membership, union hierarchies acted with an abundance of caution. They said the right things but did very little (from the safety of their own homes!). There is a limit to what can be done on Zoom! Many NHS workers felt abandoned by their unions and the initial enthusiasm for the pay campaign became characterised by bitter resignation. The pay dispute soon became a battle ground for public sector unions who represent NHS workers. Each of the unions battled to hang on to the members which they had and to recruit disgruntled workers from each other’s unions. Instead of uniting behind one campaign, each organisation made a separate pitch.

On its website, The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) states:Throughout the pandemic, the country has witnessed the most impressive demonstration of nursing, seeing it as a highly skilled profession deserving of fair pay. Without the nursing profession, we would not be where we are today. The Fair Pay For Nursing campaign aims to secure a fully-funded 12.5% pay increase for all nursing staff covered by Agenda for Change terms, as part of a one-year deal that applies equally to all bands.”

The RCN is balloting its members in May to find out if there is a majority for strike action should the pay review body’s conclusion be disappointing. The RCN is renowned for its moderation. It is a ‘sweetheart’ union and its members tend to be conservative. There is agreement among the union world cognoscenti that the RCN only called for a strike ballot because it knew that its members would vote against a strike. 

UNISON, one of the big public sector unions with a membership of over 1million, states on its website:Health workers are currently in the final year of a three-year deal. They’re due a pay rise in April but unions have been campaigning for the government to show its appreciation for NHS employees by bringing that forward. The government failed to commit to this last summer when wage increases for 900,000 workers elsewhere in the public sector were announced. A rise has now been promised by the chancellor but not until after the formal NHS pay review body reports back in May. This is likely to mean that NHS staff will not get a pay rise until July at the earliest, say the unions. Health secretary Matt Hancock has also said the increase must be determined by ‘affordability’ and Rishi Sunak has warned of restraint in future public sector pay awards.”

UNISON will make a decision about what its response will be when the pay review body reports back in May. It did, though, called for a slow handclap for the government by members of the public back in March. In Scotland, it is calling for an acceptance of the 4.5% increase pay offer.

Another big public sector union Unite the Union, again with a 1 million membership, states on its website:The government’s insulting recommendation of a one per cent pay rise for NHS workers, who are exhausted after a year of tireless caring for patients during the pandemic, is unacceptable and may be the last straw for many employees.

A decent deal for NHS staff is fair, necessary and affordable. We’re calling on the British public to speak up now for the NHS put pressure on decision makers to approve additional investment in health services and funding for a significant pay rise. If we stand #WithNHSStaff, we can tell the government to think again.” Unite has informed its healthcare members that they will be balloted for strike action in May should the review body conclusions be unsatisfactory.

The other big, public sector union The GMB states that it: “demands: A 15% wage increase, or £2 per hour, whichever is the greatest.

Like the other two big unions, the GMB has told its members that they will be balloted in May.

The pressure group Nurses United states on its website: “Nurses United is a group of frontline nurses for frontline nurses and we’re organising to get the things healthcare workers and our patients need. We won’t get what we need to improve things if we’re the only ones campaigning on this. We’ve tried it before and it doesn’t work. That’s why we need to go big with thousands of people getting involved and organising to get a 15% pay rise for all workers on the NHS pay scheme. It’ll be the first proper rise we’ve got in 10 years. Just ask any nurse and they’ll tell you the ‘huge’ pay rise the Government says we’ve received never happened.”

Nurses United is the only group which seems to be talking up the need for a big pay rise and encouraging health workers to organise and prepare for industrial action. However, those knowledgeable about union affairs are cynical about Nurses United (an American union) and suspect its motives. Is it looking to launch in the UK and are Nurses United’s paid UK organisers looking for jobs with big UK unions?

As one can see, the various healthcare worker organisations are offering a variety of approaches and leaving it to their members to decide about their response to any pay offer. This has left healthcare workers scratching their heads and wondering what to do. It would seem that the majority don’t have the stomach for taking strike action and are doing what they can hospital by hospital and ward by ward to resolve issues in the workplace which compromise their health and safety. They are self-organising to deal with immediate, workplace issues. They regard their union membership as an insurance policy, as a transactional arrangement should they need legal representation and not as a way to organise their workplaces for the better.

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