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From The Socialist newspaper, 13 June 2018

Health unions accept divisive NHS pay deal - but fightback could have won much more

Save our NHS, photo Paul Mattsson, photo Paul Mattsson

Save our NHS, photo Paul Mattsson, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

Socialist Party health workers in Unison

All but one health union - 13 of the 14 - announced on 8 June they had voted to accept the government's NHS pay offer. Only general union GMB voted to reject it.

After the shock general election result in which the NHS crisis was a key issue, it was a deal the Tories were desperate to settle. The offer was proudly endorsed by Jeremy Hunt - along with many trade union leaders.

Some of the latter called it the end of low pay in the NHS, proclaiming there would be 29% pay rises for some, and a pay cap-busting 6.5% for all. As ever, and as the Socialist Party warned, the devil's in the detail (see 'NHS pay: reject the Tories' divide and rule offer').

In reality, the pay award will be stretched out over three years, with staff receiving a 3% increase this year followed by 1.7% in the two years after. This is still below the predicted rate of inflation over the next three years, so still a real-terms cut.

On top of the cost of living award, it's true there are bigger pay awards for the lowest-paid workers. But this is actually because pay has fallen so far in the NHS that it was in danger of not meeting the over-25 minimum wage - or 'National Living Wage' as the Tories have falsely renamed it.

The government has also agreed to accelerate workers up their pay grade, giving some additional pay increases.

Pay cap

And clearly the deal - in the first year - has broken the 1% public sector pay cap. It is Westminster's biggest offer to any group of public sector workers to date.

However, Socialist Party members in the health service described the deal as divisive. More could have been won for all by a determined fight of the 14 unions.

We warned that 6.5% over three years is still a pay cut. And 52% of NHS workers won't see a penny out of accelerated pay increments, as they are already at the top of their pay band.

Also, the deal is a further shift towards performance-related pay - so what is given with one hand today can be taken with the other tomorrow.

So why was the deal accepted - in Unison, the biggest health union, by 84% of the minority of members who voted? There is no doubt that after years of pay restraint, even 3% this year can seem a welcome release - let alone the extra for newer and lower-paid staff.

Many members, after years of nothing, have lost faith in the union leadership to deliver any more.

The fact that 13 of the unions - all using the same material - were calling on members to accept, clearly had an impact. At the same time, union leaderships tried to frighten members into thinking that if they rejected, it was back to the 1% cap via the NHS Pay Review Body.

The unions put massive efforts into persuading the members to accept the deal - with the open support of NHS managers.

There were reports of management giving reps time off to travel the wards with a laptop to get members to vote online. At the same time, workers report that management, and the likes of the Unison bureaucracy, made threats of disciplinary action against activists trying to organise a reject vote.

Despite all this work, Unison could still only muster 25% of its members to vote for the deal.

The fact that 87% of voting members in GMB, one of the smaller health unions, rejected the deal shows what could be achieved had there been a united campaign to reject. Instead health unions have signed off for three years just as other public sector workers are gearing up to fight.

However, members could still press for action for a better deal during this time. They may feel emboldened to do so if industrial action for better pay, such as the coming battle in the civil service, gets results.

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