“We've given as much as we can.” These were the lying and contemptuous words spewed out by Boris Johnson this week, commenting on the derisory 1% pay ‘rise’ on offer to nurses and NHS staff.
But the Prime Minister’s words only added fuel to fire. Health workers and the wider public are rightly disgusted by this insulting offer – a wage cut, in real terms – to those who have sacrificed so much throughout the pandemic.
Even some Conservative MPs have come out against the government on this issue. And no wonder – according to recent polling, 58% of Tory voters believe that NHS workers deserve more; a figure that rises to 72% amongst the general public.
Corruption and crumbs
This NHS pay offer comes on the back of Rishi Sunak's recent Budget. In this, the Tory government was able to allocate a further £22 billion to the privatised and failed test-and-trace system.
This is just one of many examples of how this government of the rich has used the coronavirus crisis to siphon off public money to fill the pockets of their chums and cronies. Meanwhile, nurses and health workers have been left empty handed.
Similarly, while there were further handouts for big business, the Chancellor’s Budget essentially ignored public services – even when the pandemic has clearly shown that these desperately need mass investment and expansion.
The fine print, however, indicates that the Treasury plans on cutting £4 billion from the day-to-day spending. This means further misery and pressure for those working in the already overstretched NHS, or for those who rely on these vital services.
Official papers show that the government had already factored in a bigger NHS pay rise of 2.1%. This was agreed in 2018, and enshrined in parliamentary law in 2020.
This shows that workers cannot rely on negotiated agreements and legal protections. The ruling class will always change the rules when it suits them. We must fight to make our voices heard and secure our demands.
In response to this latest pay offer, an emergency Q&A with the leadership of the RCN [Royal College of Nursing] took place. This allowed nurses to vent their anger. As expected, the forum was inundated with nurses asking about strike action.
There have always been worries in the nursing community about how the public may react to a strike. An Opinium poll from 6 March, however, showed that a majority of those asked (51%) would support a strike by nurses.
Furthermore, the top two priorities for those polled were: ‘improving NHS and social care services’; and ‘increasing salaries for NHS staff’.
Over the last year, the public and patients have learned how vital it is for everyone that NHS workers receive a decent wage; that staffing levels are safe; that we have the necessary PPE; and that nurses have access to bursaries.
These things benefit us all collectively. When we are short-staffed, demoralised, and burnt out, the quality of care that we want to give is not possible to provide. To turn Boris’ words back on him: We have given as much as we can!
Fight for fair pay
The RCN also called an emergency council meeting. During this, they voted for an industrial action fund amounting to £35 million. This will help nurses make up for any loss of earnings if strike action does take place. This is the correct strategy.
The RCN leadership have long acted as a break on nurses. Historically, the union has always opposed strikes. The exception to this was in 2019, when our co-workers in the North of Ireland fought hard just to win pay equal to that of nurses in England and Wales.
There is an opportunity here for the RCN – which represents the majority of nurses in England and Wales – to continue in these footsteps; learn from these lessons; and regain trust amongst nurses.
We must not call off industrial action in response to the first low offer from the Tories. Instead, we must fight for the wages we deserve.
‘Divide and rule’
The government is already attempting to deploy a ‘divide and rule’ tactic against workers. Tory ministers point to a public sector pay freeze as evidence that the cupboard is bare, and that demands by nurses for more than 1% are unreasonable.
But the reality is that our demands – for a 12.5% increase – are more than reasonable. For starters, our pay has fallen by over 12% in real terms over the past decade. At the same time, there seems to be plenty of money when it comes to the bosses and billionaires, who have increased their already-vast fortunes and profits throughout the pandemic.
Listen to nurse and #NursesUnited organiser @Ant8Johnson8 saying that after all the bin bags 🥽 and misery that #nurses have been put through we deserve more than 1% 💪🏽#NHSPay15 pic.twitter.com/n8xad4aAK1— Nurses United UK (@nurses_united) March 5, 2021
We must therefore stand firm, aim our sights higher, and look to smash through the public sector pay freeze all together.
Heroes and villains
NHS workers are not the only ones who have made heroic sacrifices over the last year. Teachers, local government workers, and many other essential workers have also put their health and wellbeing at risk in order to keep society running. And they too now face attacks on their jobs, wages, and conditions.
Instead of allowing this race to the bottom, we must unite with public sector workers across the board to demand a decent wage for all. The wealth exists to fund this – it is just sitting in the bank accounts of big business. Instead of fighting for crumbs, therefore, we must demand the whole bakery!
We need to harness all the anger and rage that the Tories have provoked. This is not just an attack on nurses, but on all health workers. And no doubt the government and the bosses will have other workers in their sights too, as they look to present the bill for this crisis – a crisis of capitalism.
Strength in unity
The Tories have thrown down the gauntlet. The trade union leaders must answer this with swift and decisive action.
The RCN strike fund is welcome. And a ballot for strike action is also clearly in order. But nurses must not be left to fight on their own. Instead, a strike by nurses must be seen as a spark for coordinated and militant action across the trade unions.
The TUC should be organising and mobilising workers for a public sector wide strike. And grassroots activists in the labour movement should be passing motions of solidarity with the nurses and NHS workers, to put pressure on the Labour leaders and ensure that they support this struggle.
United we stand; divided we fall. Only through united strike action can we win our demands. And only by kicking out the Tories and fighting for a clear socialist alternative can we guarantee the pay and conditions that all workers deserve, and provide the resources needed to save our NHS.