Astonishing as it may seem, the two biggest unions representing health workers are busy patting themselves on the back for negotiating a pay cut for their members. More accurately, the leaderships of Unison and the RCN are shouting loudly about how good a deal they’ve got. Their members, perhaps, will be less impressed.
It’s stating the obvious, but unions are at their strongest when they’re united. We need to stand together, whether it’s in defence of the NHS or to get a decent pay settlement for our members. The old slogan of ‘Unity is strength’ didn’t come from nowhere.
Shockingly, Unison and the RCN turned their backs on every other NHS union last Friday, walked out of a joint union negotiating meeting on pay, and trotted off to do their own deal with the Department of Health and the NHS Employers.
In practice, the deal was done with the Government. The Government was desperate to get a three year deal agreed before the announcement of the Pay Review Body recommendation today. Unison and RCN broke ranks to try and bounce through agreement to a completely shoddy pay offer. The Pay Review Body recommendation of 2.75% isn’t good – but the Government, Unison and the RCN are working together to make the payment of the PRB recommendation conditional on acceptance of three years of pay restraint.
Unite and the RCM, to their credit, have made clear statements of opposition to these shoddy proposals. The smaller professional unions are also opposed. All of us need to remember – this is not a ‘done deal’ – it is a pay offer, and a very, very poor one at that.
So just how rotten is this offer? Pretty bad, when you look at the actual cost of living for ordinary workers.
Inflation gets confusing, because different measures are used. The best measure of inflation, most accurately reflecting the actual expenditure of most households, is the Retail Price Index (RPI). The Government likes to use a different figure – CPI – but this is a bit of a con trick. The CPI is typically much lower – it doesn’t properly include housing costs, and it includes the spending patterns of the super-rich (who tend to lead rather different lives to most of us). So RPI is the real figure, and the one that’s always been used for pay bargaining purposes.
RPI is currently running at 4.1%, in the 12 months to February 2008. It’s likely to get significantly higher. Mortgage costs are soaring as fixed interest deals come to a close. Fuel bills are going through the roof. Food prices are rising steadily.
So, the costs to us are 4.1% and rising. This fabulously successful pay offer is for 2.75% in the first year, 2.4% in the second year, and 2.25% in the third year. This looks suspiciously like a pay cut, followed by a bigger pay cut, followed by the biggest pay cut of all. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good deal.
There’s also some minor tweaking, so that the supporters of this offer can talk it up. The removal of the very lowest spine point on Band 1 falls far short of the aspiration to end the poverty pay of Band 1 salaries. Even this isn’t until Year 2 of the deal. A flat rate £420 for the lowest paid workers in Year 3 of the deal still delivers pay increases that are set to be well below the rate of inflation. Playing around with incremental points in Band 5 is a good thing, though it begs the question of why we accepted such a dodgy pay structure back in 2004. However, the skill mix that’s emerging from Agenda for Change is eroding jobs and pay for precisely the people who should benefit from this; and tinkering with Band 5 doesn’t solve poor pay progression for pretty much everyone else.
The table here shows the projected percentage increases, year on year. Check them out – remembering that the RPI is 4.1% and rising. The middle column labelled ‘headline uplift and flat cash’ shows the actual cost of living increases. This is about pay cuts.
Any proposals to reduce the working week are on hold – but it’s OK, because we’ll have ‘future talks between the parties on productivity improvements within the NHS’. Well, that’s reassuring.
Trade unionists have always had mixed views about the Pay Review Body – but, with these proposals, we lose even the minimal protection of a Pay Review Body report and recommendation on an annual basis. The best we are offered is that the PRB will continue to collect evidence and ‘may request a remit from the Secretary of State to review the increases’. It’s hardly surprising that Kevin Coyne, Unite’s Head of Health describes this as ‘not robust enough’. If inflation soars, there is little chance of getting these figures changed.
There are some gains, though. We’re going to get a ‘work-life balance and well being statement’, apparently. Maybe this will be on how to make tasty and nutritious meals out of a slice of stale bread and a cardboard box… And we’re also promised a revised facilities agreement. So we lose jobs, we get privatised, we get three years of pay cuts, but never mind – they’ll give us a bit more time to talk about it!
Look at the full offer here. This is just not good enough. Union activists – whatever union we’re in – have to reject this appalling set of proposals.