|Volume 53 Number 5, February 11, 2023
This week nurses, members of the RCN, and ambulance workers in Unison, Unite and GMB unions staged the third and largest health workers' strike ever in England. The health workers' strike follows on last week's co-ordinated "Walkout Wednesday" strikes by an estimated 500,000 workers from the NEU, PCS, UCU, ASLEF and RMT. What has been a brutal decade of standstill wages for workers right across the economy has left workers badly exposed to skyrocketing bills as well as for all NHS staff and particularly low paid health and care workers.
Health workers are today earning thousands of pounds a year less - in real terms - than in 2010. According to a report by the TUC, last year nurses' real pay was down £5,200 compared to 2010; porters' real pay was down by £2,500 compared to 2010; maternity care assistants' real pay was down by £4,300 compared to 2010; paramedics' real pay was down by £6,700 compared to 2010 and this trend continued into this year. This has resulted in health workers saying enough is enough and launching such powerful strike struggles over the last weeks and months.
In doing so the health workers are conscious that they are driven to this by the whole attack on the health care system in Britain by the Westminster government, who are deliberately wrecking the NHS as a vital public service and hiving off whole sectors to private companies for profit. Workers' Forum in speaking to the nurses on the picket line and noting their comments found that almost every one raised the issue of the broad attack on their conditions linked to the fate of the health care system and particularly the NHS. Vast numbers of people in the community support them and also understand that defending the conditions for staff is part and parcel of defending the right of all to health care and its future public provision in Britain. For example, a leaflet handed out to the public and pickets this week by the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign states that it is "vital to join the fight to save our hospital services and also to support the health workers and their unions, so that they can provide the service they want to".
The pickets pointed out that the issue of safe staffing levels was not caused by the pandemic as the government claims but by the running down of the health service by the government over many years and the expansion of profiteering by private staff agencies to fill the gaps that deliberate lack of staff planning and training has created. Their biggest frustration is that patients are suffering and they cannot deliver the care that they want. It is this that has driven the nurses to take such unprecedented action. They have had tremendous support both from hospital staff and in the broad workers' movement and community with the FBU and RMT and other unions, Trade Union Councils and Health Campaigns coming to the picket. The pickets were very uplifted by this. For example, even though this was an RCN strike there were a lot of Unison and other union members taking part on their day off and lunch break.
A Workers' Forum correspondent spoke to one of the picket organisers at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead on the second strike day. The organiser said: "We can say that the issues are mainly about health and safety and not just about our pay. There are not enough persons on the shop floor in our hospitals and the patients are now suffering. There is lots of support behind us for doing this, coming from both inside the hospital and outside. It is just sad that it has come to this. It goes against every moral principle that you have as a nurse to walk away from patients. So, for this reason, we have had to keep the balance right and we have had to make sure that the patients are looked after."
Workers' Forum also spoke to one of the picket organisers at the Ambulance station in South Shields during the Unison strike day of February 10. The issue she raised was that all the ambulance strikes on different days that week of Unison, GMB and Unite, which were ongoing from previous strike days, were together having an effect. Pay offers were being made to health workers in Wales, but of course the Westminster government in England was the block to progress. She also pointed out that beside the refusal of the government to negotiate on pay, they were also refusing to sort out the crisis in recruitment of staff and at least fill the vacancies.
Workers' Forum concludes from these days of action that the unprecedented strike struggle of nurses and other health workers demonstrates that they have their dignity, and they demand better. This is a demand to be treated as caring human beings, and the struggle is also part of the demand for a human-centred health service, in which health workers show their worth. It is also very clear that these courageous actions by the nurses in the face of a hostile and intransigent government and opposition are part of a whole developing movement that is uniting the working class and people to defend their interests and the interests of society as a whole.
All power to the health workers!