NHS Pay: It’s time for a fight

The Health Sector National Committee of Unite (Amicus) met yesterday, to discuss our next move in beating the 3 year pay offer. Unite (T&G) has already rejected the offer overwhelmingly. At the time of our own meeting, we were unaware that the Royal College of Midwives has voted to reject, with 99.7% against the offer. This is surely about as convincing a majority as you can get!

It’s a pleasure attending our own Health Sector National Committee these days. The mood is one of such unity, and an absolute determination to beat three years of pay cuts.

The meeting opened with a detailed report from Head of Health Kevin Coyne. He went through the run-up to the 4th April ‘proposed agreement’ in some detail, correcting some of the more bizarre misinformation that’s out there. He also summarised our campaign so far.

Our Committee first met on pay last month. We agreed then that the offer was completely unsatisfactory, and instructed Kevin to seek to re-open negotiations and get an acceptable offer. We’d also agreed to organise meetings of our members and produce campaign material explaining why the offer is so poor.

We’ve done all that. Yesterday’s meeting praised the principled stance taken by Unite, the support for members, and the high quality campaign material produced so far. We expressed absolute confidence in the work of the Head of Heath and the Union’s negotiating team.

The Committee then considered the correspondence between the Union and the NHS Employers, and between the Union and Secretary of State for Health Alan Johnson. We had written to them making it clear that we were not a party to this ‘agreement’, regarded it as unsatisfactory, and wanted to re-open negotiations.

The response from both was disappointing but not unexpected. The letter from Alan Johnson, for example, pledges that ‘the Department remains committed to continuing to working in partnership with NHS unions on the full range of workforce and employment issues’ – great, no problem there then. Unfortunately he also comments ‘The pay deal is not up for renegotiation and therefore a meeting on this matter would not serve any constructive purpose’. It’s good to see that the commitment to partnership working is so meaningful! The disgraceful practice of signing a deal with two organisations, knowing that every other union is opposed, is dismissed by Johnson as ‘an inter-union matter’.  Are there still people who claim this man’s on the side of health workers?

It was obvious to yesterday’s meeting that we now have to take this fight on to the next stage. We voted unanimously to move to a swift consultative ballot rejecting the offer and authorising our negotiators to progress to an industrial action ballot. Nobody on the Committee believes that this offer comes close to being acceptable. The meetings with members over the last few weeks have shown overwhelming opposition. There’s no choice but to move on.

The meeting also agreed that we’d ask a sympathetic MP from our Parliamentary Group to put an Early Day Motion on pay. There was no expectation from any of us that this would be a solution – but it will be a good way of forcing MPs to choose sides. Unite has had a recent ‘clear out’ of the MPs who are conspicuously not on the side of our members (Patricia Hewitt being amongst them). It’s entirely in order to do the same again.

The meeting reconsidered the pay offer briefly. Last time we met, the word ‘crap’ was used a couple of times. Yesterday the language was stronger! One Committee member commented on the re-opener clause, saying it felt like ‘With a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes, and if Mars is in conjunction with Venus, and all the planets are in alignment, then we might, just possibly, if we feel like, just about consider the very faint possibility of re-opening discussions’. Kevin Coyne described his own negotiating experience in another sector, and said the only sound basis for a three year deal was a guarantee of a minimum ‘inflation plus whatever’, with a watertight re-opener clause for any extraordinary circumstances.

One theme of the meeting was an enormous anger against the Labour Government. One Committee member commented – with heavy irony, and to much laughter – on ‘this sympathetic Labour Government’. Another talked about the increasingly vocal view of Unite members, especially in Health, that if this is the way the Labour Party treats us, why do we go on supporting and funding them. Another said it was a disgrace that we’re being expected for their financial mistakes.

Two things have become clear since the 4th April ‘agreement’ between the RCN, Unison, the NHS Employers and the Department of Health.

Firstly, the inadequacy of the offer is becoming increasingly conspicuous, as inflation soars and the economy slides ever-deeper into crisis. Signing up to a three year deal with a re-opener close that’s barely worth the paper it’s written on is an obvious mistake.

Secondly, it’s now very clear that there will be a fight over this. The list of unions saying ‘No way’ is growing. This Government got trounced in the local government elections and in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Labour has long-since walked away from its core voters. Those same core voters have had enough – they’re now walking away from Labour. Gordon Brown may want to pick a very public fight with health workers – but informed backbenchers might want to regard this as political suicide.


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