It’s easy as an NHS worker – battling with over-work, privatisation, skill mix and the like – to lose sight of the big picture. Activists in the NHS have done a terrific job in looking at the small print of our (now imposed) pay deal, and we’ve been right to do so. The three year deal is an absolute disgrace – it means not only pay cuts this year, compounded by a rapidly escalating rate of inflation, but another two years of pay cuts after that. That’s if we let the Government get its own way, of course.
There’s a big picture, though, that’s starting to look quite inspiring. Remember the Shell tanker drivers? On 21st June, these Unite members accepted a two year deal. This was the kind of multi-year deal that’s worth looking at! Their deal is for 14% across the two years – 9% this year, and 5% next year. Probably just a tad better than our three year deal of 2.75%, 2.4% and 2.25%. This was a clear and unequivocal victory for the strikers.
My belief is that the Government intervened to get the dispute settled. The drivers had struck for four days, and were quite prepared to go on striking. Very importantly, the dispute was effectively spreading across the industry. Reports from depots at Stanwell, Ellesmere Port and at Plymouth were of drivers from other companies respecting picket lines and refusing to make deliveries. This was a high profile dispute, with the petrol pumps already running dry. The Government cuts its losses and exerted pressure for a deal – but it was a deal on our terms, not theirs.
Business Secretary John Hutton rushed to say, ‘The settlement reflects particular conditions within this sector’. The only ‘particular conditions’ here were that a powerful group of workers used their industrial muscle, asked for support from other workers and got it – and won hands down.
What else goes on? RMT tube cleaners will be on strike on 26th and 27th June, to win a living wage – after voting for action by an extraordinary 125-to-one margin. If that doesn’t sort things out, they’ll be out again between 1st and 3rd July.
Local Government workers will be on strike on 16th and 17th July, against the Government’s attempts to impose ‘discipline’ on public sector workers. Isn’t it nice to see Unison supporting its members’ fight for fair pay?
PCS members will be taking further industrial action. Teachers will be on strike again in the autumn.
In Health, the ‘agreement’ has been imposed – but the fight is most certainly not over. What we fight for and how we do it will probably vary from union to union.
Unite members have given a clear mandate to our leadership for industrial action to overturn a rotten deal. Unite has approached the GMB, PCS and NUT to discuss a possible joint approach. There’s huge potential here to be part of a wider public sector fight back. It’s also worth noting that Unite organises some key groups of workers in the NHS. We have real power, if we choose to use it. And Unite of course has a ‘Cut My Pay – No Way’ day of action on 18th July. – it would be great to get real support and weight behind this.
All of us in Health who have read the ‘agreement’ know that the re-opener clause isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. But if health workers are willing to take industrial action to force the re-opening of pay negotiations, that’s rather more significant. Dave Prentis had to promise that Unison will ballot for industrial action – if prices continue to spiral and the Government refuses to re-negotiate. As prices spiral away, now might be a good time!
I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and when, and by which groups of workers. But a few things are becoming very clear indeed. When you pay a pound or more for a loaf of bread, pay ‘discipline’ isn’t on. A whole range of different groups of workers, across different unions, are starting to realise that we have the power to change things for ourselves. There are a lot of fights ahead. Some of them are going to win. This could be a good time to be a trade unionist.
A final point: we’ve got a nasty Government, a Government that attacks workers, pensioners, people with disabilities, asylum seekers. We’ve also got a weak and shambolic Government – to the extent that if we all sneezed together, we could blow away ‘pay discipline’. And it’s a Labour Government, at a time when the Labour Party is sliding into bankruptcy and dependent on our unions for almost 90% of its funding. Maybe its time for union members to start asking why we go on paying them to kick us?