Pay: Where now?

It was reported last Wednesday that in financial year 2007-2008 the NHS had a surplus of £1.8bn. It is expected that Foundation Trusts will add an additional surplus of £500m. The Health Service Journal has estimated that up to another £1.3bn surplus has been hidden through ‘accounting changes’. That means the NHS had a total surplus of up to £3.6bn last year. That could have funded an extra £2,700 in annual pay for everybody who works in the NHS – full or part time, from doctors through to porters.

We didn’t get that, of course.

The Government has negotiated a three year deal with Unison and the Royal College of Nursing – worth a good deal less than inflation this year, and almost certainly less than inflation for two years after that. I think we are being taken for a ride. It’s quite clear the money’s there to pay us a decent increase.

The Unison ballot result on the pay deal came out on Friday. They reported that 64.9% of members who voted backed the deal. There was no report on the turnout, which has led to some speculation by Unison members on the internet that the turnout was low.

It is not my position to comment on why Unison members voted the way they did. The ballot gave them the option to accept the deal or recognise that ‘sustained industrial action’ would be necessary to improve it. The Unison Health Service Group Executive, equivalent to the Unite (Amicus) Health SectorNational Committee, put the offer to the membership without a recommendation. Earlier the Unison national officers who had negotiated the deal had wanted to make a positive recommendation in favour of the deal.

I will say, in my experience, union members are often reluctant to vote for ‘sustained industrial action’, even in a consultative ballot, unless they believe their leadership is willing to pull out all the stops to ensure a victory. This did not seem to be the case in the Unison ballot with, seemingly, more material attacking other unions than attacking the Government.

Where does this leave the members of other unions, the ones who have not accepted the pay offer? In the Unison press release, Head of Health Karen Jennings, who is also Labour candidate for the Hornsey and Wood Green parliamentary constituency, talks about a number of ‘small health unions’ that have opposed the deal.

The dismissive tone might be considered unhelpful. Unite, with 100,000 Health Sector members, can hardly be considered ‘small’. My own view, in any case, is that we have to recognise and work within the diverse union membership that exists in the NHS. Most midwives will join the RCM, most physiotherapists will join the CSP, and so on. That isn’t going to change.

Although Jennings says that ‘We will be making it a priority to meet with them and discuss a way forward’, I suspect the dialogue will be very much a statement of ‘We’ve agreed this, it’s happening’. I say that because the press release goes on to say ‘Members can expect to see the money from this pay rise in their pay packets in July’.

We are faced with a situation where the leaderships of Unison and the RCN, a TUC and non-TUC union, are working together but attempting to exclude from a real role in the negotiations other unions representing up to 200,000 health workers.

We were sold Agenda for Change as a deal where we would all work in partnership. It seems Unison prefers partnership with Government negotiators rather than with other TUC affiliated Unions.

So are we supposed to take it lying down?

I guess some might say all health workers should join Unison, and then we would all have had a vote in Unison’s ballot. I suspect that would not be appealing to many members of other unions. It is not as though we have been ineffectual. A few examples: it was MSF (now part of Unite) that won a magnificent equal pay victory for speech and language therapists. This and Unison’s Carlisle case were landmark equal pay cases. Unite has done a great job over the last couple of years maintaining pay in Estates. Unite has been at the forefront of numbers of fights against cuts and redundancies.

The Government may seek to impose the pay offer. It does so at its peril. Forcing through three years of pay cuts for NHS workers might be seen as signing an electoral suicide note.

There are other long-term consequences here. The events of the last two months represent a sustained attack on national pay bargaining, and the framework agreed as part of Agenda for Change.The Government is choosing to negotiate only with the organisations that it sees as compliant. The partnership working agreed in 2004 is in tatters.

My own view is that the ‘small’ unions referred to by Karen Jennings are not powerless in this situation. Nor is Unite. These unions have developed from groups of workers in the NHS, not scattered individuals. Unite is dominant in Health Care Science, in Health Visiting, Estates, Pharmacy and many other groups. We might not be a position to call industrial action across the whole of the NHS, but we could mount effective industrial action in some departments in every hospital and Primary Care Trust. We are not powerless. We have to decide when and how we want to use that bargaining power.

We want national pay bargaining. The Government, Unison and the RCN have effectively torn it up.If we are excluded, we will have to consider going it alone. We would not be able to do this within the joint union and PRB framework agreed as part of Agenda for Change – so a good deal of discussion is necessary here.

Unite will be having a Health Service National Committee after our own ballot results are known. The priority is to agree a way forward. We will have a lot of questions to both ask and answer.

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