On 9-10th March, junior doctors across England went on strike for the third time this year, taking action for 48-hours in defence of their terms and conditions - and the wider NHS also.
This most recent action is the first of three planned since the announcement by Jeremy Hunt, the Tory health secretary, that the new junior doctors' contract would be imposed, after the Tories refused to offer any compromise in negotiations with the BMA - the doctors' union.
It is clear now that the Tories will not budge as a result of strikes by the junior doctors alone. Hunt, Cameron, et al. are clearly terrified of the prospect of conceding any ground, knowing the inspirational example that this would set to workers across the rest of the labour movement who are facing similar attacks on their jobs, pay, and conditions.
There is massive widespread support for the junior doctors' struggle - amongst other NHS staff, such as the nurses; within the rest of the trade union movement; and amongst the wider public - and this support has stayed stable (and possibly even grown) over the past few months, despite the constant stream of lies and slander by the Tories and their loyal servants in the mainstream media.
The task now is to convert this wide and deep support into concrete action. If the Tories will not concede to the junior doctors, then it is the task of the labour movement leaders to call for a one-day general strike to support the doctors, save the NHS, and bring down the Tory government.
At the same time, it is necessary to stress that the Tories are not attacking the NHS simply due to their own personal hatred of public services and fervent desire for privatisation. The assault on the NHS is part of a wider programme of austerity seen not only in Britain, but across the whole world, as governments everywhere - and of all colours - find themselves defending a system that can no longer afford the reforms of the past.
In this respect, the junior doctors' struggle - and the fight to save the NHS - must be used as a spark to ignite the flame of a mass movement aimed at ending capitalism and fighting for the socialist transformation of society. The Corbyn-led Labour Party should be at the forefront of this struggle, demanding an end to (and reversal of) privatisation and outsourcing in the NHS, calling for the nationalisation of the big pharma companies that make eye-watering profits from selling their products to the NHS, and linking these into a bold socialist programme involving the nationalisation of the banks and major monopolies, in order to guarantee decent jobs, pay, and public services - including a fully-funded publically-provided NHS - for all.
East London Hospitals
After a slightly washed-out picket line and "Meet the Doctors" event in Covent Garden on day one of the strike, junior doctors in east London were rejuvenated on day two by an impressive turnout at a march and rally through the City, ending up at St Paul's Cathedral.
Four different hospitals in east London converged at the Royal London Hospital at around 5pm, joined by student nurses and other supporters, before marching through the streets, past the Bank of England and the glass towers of finance capital, ending up at Sir Christopher Wren's famous landmark.
The march itself provided a vivid demonstration of the determination of the junior doctors, with slogans and chants to "Save Our NHS" and get rid of Jeremy Hunt, the Tory health secretary, being shouted throughout.
Once the protest arrived at St Paul's, the hundreds of junior doctors present gathered on the cathedral's steps, along with their supporters, to hear a string of stirring speeches from trade union leaders - such as Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union - who spoke about the inspiration that the doctors' strike had provided to the rest of the labour movement, bringing solidarity, and praising the medics for their resolve in fighting to defend the NHS.
The way forward was emphasised by the rally's speakers: the whole of the labour movement - including the TUC and the Labour Party leaders - need to get behind the junior doctors, calling for a one-day general strike in defence of the NHS, and against Tory attacks and austerity. With the Tories already floundering and tearing themselves to pieces over the EU referendum, such militant united action could finish them off.
Matt Wrack @ Junior Doctors' rally - 10th March 2016
Matt Wrack - general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union - gives a stirring speech at the junior doctors' rally outside St Paul's cathedral on 10th March, emphasising the importance of the doctor's strike in defending the NHS, galvanising the labour movement, and bringing down the Tory government. #SaveOurNHSPosted by Socialist Appeal on Friday, 11 March 2016
University College London Hospital
The picket line at University College Hospital in central London was well attended, as with previous strikes. Doctors, hospital staff, and members of the public were distributing materials to passers by, and traffic was almost continuously beeping to show support.
Sion Williams, a junior doctor at UCLH who was on the picket line, told Socialist Appeal:
"The strike today is doing really well. Of course, none of us want to be here, we want to be on the wards with our patients. The public have been really supportive. I haven't had one negative comment all day. People seem to be even more supportive now than at the beginning of all this, so I'm really encouraged and warmed by that. I think it shows how much people really care about the NHS and their public services.
"Its very important to be doing this today, particularly after we have had this contract imposed on us. A contact to which we have quite vocally and publicly stood up and said we don't agree with.
"What happens after this, I'm not sure. There is another strike planned in approximately 2 or 3 weeks. After that, people are talking about even stronger action. Things such as a mass resignation, or even further strikes."
One thing was clear from the pickets - they would not take this attack lying down. This dispute has enormous public support, given that millions rely on the NHS and could not do without it. Furthermore, people are sick of the Tories, and their wider austerity programme. The junior doctors struggle has the potential to galvanise all this anger into a full on assault against the government.
By combining with other sections of the NHS and the rest of the trade union movement, the defence of the NHS could be the cause that unites the movement to prepare for a general strike - a movement that could bring down the Tories.
Heavy rain - so heavy around Coventry that it produced flooding in Warwick and Kenilworth; but the wind and the cold could not dampen the spirits of BMA junior doctors on the picket line at the entrance to University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire. Despite many of them being soaked, they refused to take up the offer to finish the picketing early and go to a room, tea and coffee on offer at Wyken Community Centre. They are a hardy bunch these doctors!
Picketing here is not easy as the site that the hospital sits on is private land, so only the entrance to the site can be picketed. As there were few passers-by on foot, some initiative was needed. Slowing traffic onto the site gave pickets and supporters the chance to knock on vehicle windows and hand over leaflets. Such activity is essential to keep the public onside, as polls show that 65% of the public support the junior doctors. This must be built on, as the government has the mass media on its side and it will fight to the end as it realises that when the junior doctors win, that will be a signal to workers in other sectors to also take up the fight to defend services, jobs, terms and conditions.
A number of suggestions have been put forward to enhance the prospects of victory. Firstly, there is the need to share out the many tasks that have to be done to ensure that the dispute and the picket lines are well supported and run. That can be done by setting up a strike committee so that everyone has a role to play and the tasks are shared.
Secondly, on site support is essential so contacts are being made with the reps from other unions - Unite and Unison - so that mutual support can be garnered. After the junior doctors, the government will come for all hospital workers as it seeks to find £22bn of "efficiency savings" - in other words, attacks on workers in the hospitals.
Thirdly, support from other trade unions outside the hospital must be sought to show that the junior doctors are not only fighting against imposed contracts and worsened terms and conditions, but also to defend the NHS, a service that all workers rely on and will use at some stage in their lives.
The main strike organiser will be speaking at a Momentum meeting in Coventry next Tuesday, March 15th, where we are showing a film called Sell Off about the privatisation of the NHS. There will also be a doctor speaker at the AGM of Coventry TUC next Thursday.
Fourthly, trade unions can show their support in many ways: going to the picket line; sending messages of support; and sending money - so the setting up of a local strike fund will at some time be essential. There are costs to be met - placards, hot drinks, travel to speak at meetings - and those costs should be shared. Trade unions and their members will also want to donate cash and will want a bank account strike fund to donate to. Many junior doctors I spoke to about this were reluctant to seek hardship support from such a fund, as compared to many other workers they feel they are well paid and can sustain losses through strike action. But given the salary range of the junior doctors - £23k to £50k - there will be those setting out on a medical career that may find it hard to manage. Such hardship can sap morale.
Continued support from the public is also essential, so the idea was raised of spending one Saturday in the city centre handing out leaflets and engaging in conversations with the public....and possibly wearing white lab coats with stethoscopes around the neck as junior doctors did 40 years ago.
Finally, however, there is a political battle to be won. The attacks on JDs and the NHS are part and parcel of the aim of the Tories to cut public spending and erase the public sector deficit during this Parliament - it currently stands at about £70bn - and all of this to be done by attacking the living standards of working class people while the rich, the 1%, amass even greater wealth.
The deficit itself, however, is a product of the crisis of capitalism, where the only way to ensure the system continues is to expand credit to enlargen the market. Credit, however, is also debt that must be repaid. That is the anarchy of capitalism. The industrial fight against the Tory government that represents the 1% is also a political fight against capitalism and for socialism.
The discussions on the picket line this morning were very revealing. Before this dispute the majority of junior doctors were Tory voters and supporters. That is not a surprise, as doctors at all levels have traditionally come from a more privileged layer. But as Marx stated, conditions determine consciousness, and this dispute has made many junior doctors wake up to the fact that they are workers who sell their labour power, and therefore have interests that are far closer to the labour movement and the Labour Party than to the Tories.
On the picket this morning I spoke to a new member of the Labour Party, who joined to support Corbyn and who is now a supporter of Momentum also. This struggle has been a steep learning curve in terms of consciousness. It is true, times are changing. Economic upheaval produces political upheaval.
Isle of Wight
I went down to the picket this morning, where I was welcomed warmly as usual - and got soaked and cold!
I stayed to discuss the economy and the EU and I told them the working class was 60-70% behind them, watching to see if they too might be able to take on the government or their boss. We touched on the question of morale, which is is low, and I explained that it would not be a straight line to a result. There will be good days and bad.
Those on the picket line were eager to learn how we nurses viewed their strike and were encouraged when I told them workers up and down the country were watching their struggle. I think I left them feeling better than when I had arrived and one of them said he might join the Labour Party. Little victories.
There were only four on the picket today, largely due to BMA members giving emergency cover. The one who was most the most talkative said that eventually they will have to stop giving emergency cover.
One thing is clear: the junior doctors may be downhearted at present, but they are determined to see this struggle through to the end.
In Worcester, the rain was pouring, but 20 junior doctors joined the picket line, supported by five Labour Party members. At previous strike days, the picket line was spread either side of the main entrance to the hospital, but due to the inclement weather the pickets concentrated below the main entrance canopy which intensified the discussions with the public and led to thousands of signatures being gathered on the BMA petition.
I took along six folding camping chairs and two tables so that the pickets did not have to stand all the time. As we were setting these up, an official started to object, stating that we were obstructing the entrance. I found out that this official was the PR officer for the Trust - it seems the Chief Executive is a bit twitchy after receiving a phone call from the local Tory MP Robin Walker, maybe taking up the junior doctors campaign!
Day two in Worcester: the picket line was reduced to only five junior doctors, due to a funeral of a colleague who died suddenly. Today’s mood was not as buoyant as yesterday. One female doctor had been a bit depressed after seeing the Tory MP for Redditch on TV spouting the government’s lies, but this mood lifted when she was able to see the support the patients and visitors were giving to the doctors, and at the end of the picket she was joining in with laughter.
All was well until about 11.30am when a man approached the BMA rep saying we had to move as we were too intimidating! This is ironic, as the picket line was the most joyous I have ever been on, and the public support was massive; the only argument could be obstruction, as people patiently waited to sign the petition, but no hostility was shown to anybody. On checking this guy out, it was found out he was not even a Trust manager, but worked for the PFI company. Unison is going to take this up with the Trust management, as the PFI was not party to this dispute.
In discussions with the junior doctors and the Labour Party members, the class nature of the strike came up. Considering that 70% of junior doctors were privately educated, the class lessons are quickly being learnt - not to mention the striking lawyers last year, and the chorus of the National Opera going on strike recently also.
Capitalism is certainly creating its own gravediggers. The junior doctors are speaking at a range of labour movement meetings around Worcester; at one meeting the questions and discussion went on for four hours, with the audience clearly enthused by the junior doctors’ strike.
Solidarity was the key message of today’s picket lines: solidarity not just with the junior doctors being forced into unfair contracts, nor just from the socialists who turned out in numbers from all different lifestyles to show their support, but solidarity from the whole population that relies on the NHS for their personal, public and mental health. This is not just because of the unsafe conditions the junior doctors are being threatened with, but because of what this contracts leads towards: the privatisation of the NHS.
There was some demoralisation on view amongst some of the doctors early in the day - a feeling that we couldn’t stop the Tory onslaught taking place. But, as support grew, both with increasing numbers at the picket lines and increasing local encouragement, the morale quickly grew - a morale that the icy rain and bitter cold winds of Newcastle could not waver.
These are young doctors, who want to dedicate their lives to medicine, not because of money or influence, but because of an impelling duty to do what is right and to help others in need. The understandable anger and frustration amongst the junior doctors, who can be training for over a decade to achieve their aspirations, has led to many wanting to immigrate to countries who don’t currently force these conditions upon their medics. This is a choice the doctors shouldn’t feel forced to make, and a situation we as a society shouldn’t be forced to suffer.
Whether you are a doctor, someone that has used the NHS, or you know someone who has: it is clear from the mood at today’s picket lines, that this is a nationwide issue, that affects us all.