Most of us will be aware of soaring inflation every time we go to the supermarket, or each time an electricity or gas bill turns up. RPI (the real rate of inflation) was 5.3% in July, up from 4.8% in June. This is before the shocking rises in utility prices feed through. The National Statistics summary is here. The August figures – due on 16th September – will be even higher.
The Bank of England’s ‘August Inflation report’ makes the rather obvious statement ‘…. the recent increases in individual prices have been very sharp. And they have been concentrated in goods that are both necessities and purchased frequently, increasing both their visibility and their impact on households’ monthly budgets’.
The three year pay deal – negotiated by Unison and RCN, and imposed by the Government – looks ever more inadequate. This year’s award of 2.75% is half of what we would need just to stand still. Even worse, we’re intended to be locked into a three year deal, with 2.4% awaiting us next year, and 2.25% the year after this. The deal was a mistake. No one can be in any doubt about that at all.
Back in June, Unite members voted overwhelmingly against, with 95% giving a resounding ‘No’ to the deal. We also voted to progress to a formal ballot on industrial action.
That position remains unchanged. Our national pay strategy meeting took place today – a positive and quite bouncy meeting. We’re part way through a campaign now, having launched a national petition, and an open letter for reps to circulate to all members. We’re holding activists meetings across the country, to consult on what industrial action members want to see. The plan is to hold the ballot for industrial action in late October.
The demands are pretty straightforward. We reject the three year deal. We want to renegotiate now. We want at least the rate of inflation for our members.
This wasn’t a decision making meeting – that’ll take place once all the activists meetings are over. The meeting was more about reviewing where we are, and what needs to happen to drive this campaign forward.
There are some real positives. There’s a growing mood across a number of public sector unions – including Unite, PCS and NUT – for coordinated industrial action. There are 6 million public sector workers in the UK – why fight separately when we can fight together and be far stronger? There are some good motions going forward to the TUC next week. And within Unite, the ‘Cut My Pay – No Way’ campaign is for our members across the public sector (primarily health, local authorities and Ministry of Defence). That unity is important. It’s a key way of giving confidence to members who are being clobbered by reorganisation and privatisation.
There are other positives:
A lay activist from Wirral Hospital NHS Trust talked about their recent dispute over moving from weekly to monthly pay. Members had started off unconfident and unsure about taking action – and ended up (after a two week overtime ban and two days strike action) with massive gains. The members who had been so worried about taking action ended up feeling ten feet tall. The dispute shows very clearly that health workers can strike and win.
The reports from the first two activists meetings were of absolute agreement that the three year deal is unacceptable, and absolute agreement that we have to take industrial action to boot it out.
There are other things that are harder. A lot of our members do lack confidence. The constant attacks of recent years have done real damage. We talked about the need for leadership, and to mobilise our activists around the country. It’s also clear that union structures are a bit more ‘creaky’ than we’d like – we’re producing the badges and posters and petitions and postcards, but they’re not always finding their way out to lay members. We need organisation and confidence to win this one – and this is maybe where we can use the traditions of the T&G section of the union. Victories like Grangemouth and Shell are a brilliant illustration of what unions can do when we get it right.
There’s an urgent need for us to build this fight. There’s a fair bit of misinformation flying around – including that NHS unions have only signed up for a one year deal, and we can get more next year. There are challenges there. It’s a three year deal, with a re-opener clause that’s about as weak as it could be. The re-opener clause allows us to ask the Pay Review Body to ask the Secretary of State to review our pay if he feels like it. Given that he’s just imposed three years of pay cuts, he isn’t necessarily going to say ‘Yes, no problem lads’.
Dave Fleming, joint Head of Health, made a good point in the meeting. There could be real legal problems for unions that have accepted the deal in taking industrial action in Years 2 and 3. Action against the PRB for not recommending more money, for example, would almost certainly fall on the wrong side of the law – because the PRB isn’t the employer of NHS workers. I’ve personally got no problem at all with unions breaking the law when we have to, but that’s going to be a hard fight to win across the leaderships of all the NHS unions. No – if we’re serious about a fightback, now is absolutely the right time to do it.
I took a call this evening from one of our reps in East London. It was a sharp reminder of why this fight matters. She’s not on a bad salary by NHS standards. But she’s a single Mum, with three children. She lives in a housing association property – and she got a letter today telling her that her rent has been reviewed and the new ‘fair’ rent will be a third higher. Her food and fuel bills are going through the roof. She was planning to support her grown up daughter in doing an access course and going on to do a nursing degree. With three years of pay cuts lined up, that looks less and less realistic. She needs a fair pay increase. We all do.