At the St Leonard's hospital picket line in Hackney, north London, November 2014, photo Paul Mattsson

At the St Leonard’s hospital picket line in Hackney, north London, November 2014, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

NHS strike called off in face of inadequate pay offer

The Unison Health Service Group Executive (SGE) voted to suspend NHS England strike action scheduled for 29 January.

Due to the determination of NHS staff, Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt was compelled to meet health unions on Wednesday 21 January. He wanted the strike to be suspended, or an extension of emergency ambulance cover.

The government’s hand was forced following numerous press reports on the crisis in the NHS. NHS and ambulance trusts said that the planned 12-hour strike would have a much greater impact than the previous two four-hour strikes and that it was drawing in further groups from the workforce.

It is also clear that there is huge public anger about the crisis in the NHS, which could be mobilised by the health unions specifically and the wider union movement.

Support for the strike had grown following news that employers wanted to cut unsocial hours payments which would have a massive effect on many staff.

The offer

The offer to the health unions is a 1% consolidated pay rise beginning in April 2015, some concessions to ambulance staff and the offer of further talks about redundancy pay.

The government only intervened because union members stood firm and showed they were prepared to deliver further and longer industrial action.

It demonstrates that the government can be moved when faced with determined action from the unions.

Some union members may also see this as a victory for the action they took. However, the government has conceded nothing on the pay claim for 2014, one of the key issues triggering the strike.

Overall this offer does not represent the aspirations of union activists and members to return what we have lost, estimated to be 10-12% since 2010. Members already at the top of their pay grade will not get any increase at all.

More could be achieved if we had a determined and strong leadership. NHS England bosses all but admitted they were in a difficult position and wanted to end the action.

In these circumstances, it is a poor negotiator indeed who manages to come up with less pay than the small amount that was asked for.

It was an opportunity to win a better pay increase, knock back the continual attacks on terms and conditions and strike a blow against threats to unsocial hour payments. However, the Unison leadership is fixed to ‘concession bargaining’.

It is not unreasonable to think Unison leaders were interested in this two-year ‘deal’ so they could maintain industrial calm for the benefit of their hoped for Labour government after the general election.

Oppose the deal

Despite some concessions to the ambulance workers, which the employers will look to attack later, Socialist Party members on the Unison Health SGE voted against suspending the strike action because of the inadequacy of the offer.

There will now be a ballot putting the offer to the membership, with a new strike date to be looked at if the offer is rejected.

Friday 13 March was suggested to coincide with a public sector strike in Northern Ireland, where NHS strike action by 3,000 Unite and GMB members did take place on 29 January.

Unite, GMB and other trade unions are also suspending their NHS action.

Socialist Party members in the unions will campaign for a rejection of the proposed offer. We will continue to argue for increases in pay to reflect what we have lost.

This can only be won through strong and determined leadership with an explanation of where funds can be found for pay as well as the services we operate.

We know that this is only the first skirmish in what will be ongoing attacks on our terms and conditions to meet the demands of the austerity political parties.

Collective industrial action, as we have seen, will be the only force to prevent these parties and big business having their way.

Socialist Party members in Unison health

[The online version of this article was updated on 4 February 2015]