The right-wing leadership of Unison’s health Service Group Executive have backed down from challenging the Tories’ 3% pay offer. It is clearer than ever that the left must organise to replace the existing leadership, for one that delivers real change.
Pay ballots are being conducted by all the major unions in the NHS. These are set against the backdrop of 20 years’ of austerity, privatisations, and job losses – and of course the effects of COVID-19. In their own ballot, Unison’s health Service Group Executive (SGE) has thrown in the towel in what are otherwise favourable circumstances to fight.
Unison health workers in NHS England recently received notice that, following the ‘indicative ballot’ of NHS members, the leadership of the union in the health SGE had determined that: “We have not heard from enough members to be confident that we could progress to a formal ballot which would meet the legal threshold to take action.”
We understand that the indicative ballot returned a 70% rejection of the government’s insulting 3% pay offer, on a similar turnout to the first indicative ballot. That the turnout remained as low as it did is a scandal, especially when the Royal College of Nurses managed to get a 70% turnout in their ballot, despite having never gone out on strike before.
What is clear is that the right-wing leaders who control the health SGE decided to retreat on this issue and campaign as softly as possible. They thereby snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
“The 2021 pay award has already been wiped out by rising living costs”, explains the article on Unison’s website. “Take-home pay will decrease further when the government’s National Insurance hike hits pay packets in April 2022.”
“Staff are facing what could be the worst winter ever. The patient backlog continues to rise, staffing shortages are worsening by the minute, and now there’s uncertainty over the impact of the Omicron variant.”
Members clearly face a bleak future with more and more pressure heaped upon them. So why has the leadership of the health SGE failed to translate the palpable mood of anger and frustration in the NHS into a struggle for a decent pay rise for our members?
Health service workers have been in the headlines, praised and applauded for almost two years now. There has probably never been a better opportunity to win a significant pay rise for NHS staff in its history.
The question needs to be asked of the leadership in health: How did you manage to achieve so little?
Why did the health SGE fail to outright reject the 3% offer? Why did it merely oppose the offer? Given that the claim was for much more, then surely rejection would have been the correct position?
Why did the health SGE feel the need to run two rounds of balloting to consult the members?
Why has the campaign been so lukewarm?
At a time when public opinion is overwhelmingly on the side of NHS staff, and the government is so clearly in a mess, why did the health SGE not launch a huge mobilisation to win their £2K demand for everyone – or better still, 15% across the board?
This could easily have been done by appealing to the public for support and building from day one towards industrial action across the NHS. Yet this is precisely what the SGE failed to do.
All the evidence suggests the leadership in the health SGE wasn’t prepared for, or even willing to wage, a serious campaign over NHS pay.
Unison members will be asking themselves: If the current leadership in health cannot lead a successful campaign under such incredibly favourable conditions, then when will they do so?
The article on the union’s website explains the 2022 pay campaign will soon be commencing. But we have to ask: What will the health SGE do differently this time? How will the health SGE galvanise the branches and inspire activists to fight for a pay rise in 2022 when they couldn’t manage it in 2021?
Many Unison activists will be drawing the conclusion that it’s time for real change in the leadership of the union’s health SGE. Elections will be taking place in the new year for the new SGE.
Already new activists are coming forward who are willing to take a lead in representing our members. It’s evident that the old methods of the existing SGE have achieved very little.
We need real change in health. The left organised around the #TimeforRealChange banner have a tremendous opportunity to deliver this, provided that we mobilise the new layers who have come into activity, and fight for every seat in the forthcoming elections.
First and foremost, this means mobilising activists to campaign in every NHS workplace to explain to Unison members the need for a bold new leadership. It must be pointed out that that staff cannot expect their pay and conditions to be safeguarded by those unwilling to fight.
Once this battle is won, the left must then show that they mean business. NHS workers cannot wait until the conclusion of the next pay campaign for a pay rise.
It will take a big struggle to secure an adequate pay rise for NHS workers. The demands for £2K for all, or even 15%, would require coordinated action to win them.
This means preparing the ground for such action as part of the effort to replace the current SGE. The left must reach out to members in all workplaces, not just run a few stalls in a couple of hospitals over a lunch break. There has been too much lip service paid to the fight against low pay.
This will require a vigorous campaign in all health branches. There is an enormous frustration over pay across the whole public sector, but branches need support in mobilising the members.
It’s not sufficient to merely say to branches that they can ‘download [information] from the website’. We need genuine leadership in health. Such a campaign is now more urgent than ever.
These battles form part of the overall struggle to transform our unions into real fighting organisations for the working class, armed with a socialist programme and a perspective for transforming the whole of society in turn.
This is the kind of real change NHS workers – and workers everywhere – need most. The fight for it begins now!