After months of struggle, several major unions have called off the strikes in the NHS, pending acceptance of the government’s latest pay offer.
It has been clear for some time that the Tories are on the ropes. Despite all their efforts to smear nurses, paramedics, and junior doctors as ‘greedy’, the public has remained solidly behind striking NHS staff. As for the health workers themselves, morale has been high on every picket line.
All this time, however, behind the scenes, union negotiators have been holding secret discussions with the government. In public, meanwhile, health union leaders have been calling on the Tories to ‘see reason’, relying on moralistic appeals to the employers and their political representatives.
The fruit of all this is a new deal, which members are set to vote on. This includes a 5% pay rise from April, covering 2023/24, and a one-off payment for last year, worth between £1,655 and £3,789, depending on the pay scale of the worker in question. This is on top of the £1,400 wage increase already imposed for 2022/23.
Union leaders have cheered this as a significant pay rise. In fact, it is anything but.
Inflation has been running at over 10% for some time, and is continuing to rise. The government’s latest offer, therefore, represents a real-terms pay cut of 5%.
Any lump sum bonus, meanwhile, will do little to compensate for soaring bills and higher living costs, or for the wage erosion that health workers have suffered over the last decade.
Lest we forget, not long ago, in the midst of the pandemic, unions such as the RCN (Royal College of Nursing) were calling for at least a 12.5% pay rise. And other health campaigners were fighting for 15%. But now these same people are recommending acceptance of a rotten below-inflation deal.
By their own admission, the Tory government has been left floundering by the recent strike wave, with huge public support for the health strikes in particular.
Yet the message from the tops of the unions is that this deal is the ‘absolute best’ that can be achieved, and that members should therefore vote to accept it. This is the line of the Unison, GMB, and RCN leaderships.
Only Unite, led by left-winger Sharon Graham, has correctly recommended rejection to its members, emphasising the severe limitations of these proposals.
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, in particular, has offered blood-curdling warnings to the nurses she ‘represents’, stating that they will not get a better offer if they reject this one. Members, in effect, are being told to like it or lump it.
Such an assertion will no doubt seem puzzling to rank-and-file health workers. Previously the government was intransigent, saying that the cupboard is bare when it comes to public sector pay. Yet determined strike action has clearly forced them to the negotiation table, resulting in an improved offer.
Similarly, striking workers in other industries have won genuine inflation-busting wage rises, demonstrating that militancy pays.
So why are Cullen and co. so certain that this deal is the ‘best’ that can be squeezed out of the government and the employers?
Unfortunately, this fits a pattern of behaviour we have seen throughout the health strikes.
The RCN leadership, to take one example, has been quite vocal about seeing their fight as ‘separate’ to the other disputes going on. Consequently, they have even openly refused to coordinate action with other unions.
“Our dispute is about the nursing profession and doing a deal for nursing is my only priority. My members spoke very clearly to give the RCN a unique mandate for strike action. Our days of action and future planning is based only on what is best for nursing.”
Unfortunately, this same divisive attitude has been displayed by other health unions also. For example, NHS strikes were not timed to coincide with the recent mass coordinated action on 1 February or 15 March, when teachers, civil servants, and lecturers walked out in tandem.
Indeed, even the negotiations behind this latest deal didn’t begin as a united effort. Scandalously, in pursuit of securing their own deal, RCN leaders were prepared to leave other unions – and other healthcare workers – high and dry.
From the start, these right-wing union leaders have pursued a policy of class collaboration.
Consciously or otherwise, they see themselves not as class fighters, representing the interests of the working class, but as go-betweens or ‘negotiators’ between the workers and the employers, hoping to achieve social peace and quiet.
Rather than linking the struggles in the NHS to those being waged by the rest of the labour movement, they have publicly refused to associate themselves with the wider strike wave, or with left union leaders such as Mick Lynch of the RMT, Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and Sharon Graham of Unite.
After all, more than anything, these right-wingers crave to be seen as ‘respectable’ and ‘responsible’ by the establishment, not tarnished with the brush of militancy by joining forces with rail workers, posties, and other trade unionists.
All of this has played right into the hands of the Tories, who hope to split the health unions away from the rest of the strike movement, in a classic case of ‘divide and rule’.
And shockingly, health union leaders have gone along with this, suspending their strikes before any deal had even been put on the table – ostensibly to demonstrate ‘good faith’ to an employer that has none.
Left-led unions such as PCS, meanwhile, representing civil servants, have been stonewalled by the government, who clearly hope to isolate and exhaust these workers.
At the same time, negotiations are ongoing as to where the funding for this deal will come from.
Senior Tory ministers have already suggested that the money will have to come from within existing budgets. In concrete terms, this means further austerity, job cuts, and attacks on conditions – a clear case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Class-conscious workers will immediately see through this. Unison, GMB, and RCN negotiators, however, are more than happy to try and pull the wool over our eyes, in order to keep the peace between workers and the bosses.
That, in the end, is why they are trying to force this bad deal on rank-and-file members, when the possibility absolutely exists to force the government into a full-scale retreat.
The Tories’ strategy – of splintering the strike movement, deploying the carrot and the stick, and dealing with each dispute piecemeal – will now be used to quell the rest of the unions. Already, the acquiescence of the health unions is being used to pressure education workers into making concessions.
It is too soon to call time on the NHS strikes, however. Junior doctors, organised in the BMA, for example, have scheduled a further four days of walkouts for 11-15 April, demanding nothing less than a 35% pay rise, to make up for 15 years of below-inflation increases.
And there are also rumblings amongst grassroots members in Unison, GMB, and RCN, with many seeing right through all the smoke and mirrors. A cross-union campaign called ‘NHS Workers Say No’ is mobilising members to reject the deal. Similarly, the left-wing Time For Real Change group in Unison is calling for rejection. This offer, therefore, could still be voted down.
— NHS Workers Say NO! (@NurseSayNO) March 21, 2023
This would put enormous pressure on the union leaders to organise a new wave of action – despite their evident desire to end the strikes at any cost.
Regardless of the results of this upcoming ballot, the capitalist crisis hasn’t gone away. And whether it be through inflation or austerity, or both, workers everywhere are going to be asked to foot the bill.
The catastrophe inside the NHS is only getting worse, meanwhile. New fights are certain to break out, therefore, as workers are forced into action to defend themselves. Union activists must prepare for battle.
Above all, this episode must serve as a warning to the rest of the labour movement.
The trade unions are at a crossroads. But without fighting leadership, our struggles are heading for a dead end.
On the basis of class collaboration and backroom negotiations at the top, and despite the heroic efforts from below, workers will be led to defeat.
That is why the fight to transform our unions is so important. To win, only militant, united action and clear socialist policies will suffice. And this requires bold leadership that is prepared to go all the way.
- Reject this rotten deal! Resume the strikes!
- Unite the struggles to win! United we stand, divided we fall!
- For militant leadership and bold socialist policies!
- For a mass campaign of coordinated action against austerity!
- Kick out the Tories! Kick out capitalism!