The strike action by junior doctors has been historic and brave, but there is a real risk that the potential of the strike is wasted. The fight against the contract, and the wider fight to save what remains of the NHS could be set back if the strikes don’t realise their full potential, and instead settle for a compromise.
From the start the Junior Doctors Committee (JDC) have emphasised their main aim is to secure a fair contract for doctors. While the mass of junior doctors on protests, in the media and on strike have emphasised they see their fight as being to protect the NHS.
This focus on the nature of the contract omits the context of the attacks (which the wider community of doctors are well aware of), that the contract changes are part of much broader attacks on pay and conditions across the NHS. When seen in isolation, a demand for a fair contract may seem realistic, but against the backdrop of pay freezes, widespread down banding, cuts and privatisation, the new contract is an integral part of the plan to dismantle the NHS, and not something the government will concede on easily.
If the aim really is a fair contract, the JDC needs to demand an improvement in conditions, and escalate its actions until the government begins to grant them concessions, not the other way round. However, rather than setting the status quo as a non-negotiable minimum, and advancing a set of demands to improve the contract, the JDC have gone into negotiations and repeatedly made concessions to the government.
Details are hard to come by as the JDC has kept the details of what is being negotiated secret from its members, a problem in itself, but its understood the five “redlines” that the JDC had initially have now been reduced to one; that Saturday remain an unsocial hours day. This has been born out in the leaked details of an offer made to the government by BMA negotiators.
Granting concessions only gives doctors less to fight for, while the on again, off again nature of the strikes demoralises members and disorganises local activists. The constant entering into negotiations and demobilising of strike action disrupts the service more than regular, planned strike action, and gives the government more time to campaign in the media against the strike with resources we could never dream of.
Last year other health unions suspended strikes with only a paltry pay offer on the table, this killed the momentum of the dispute and when it was put to the members to vote only 17% of UNISON members bothered to participate, not wanting the deal but not trusting their union to lead an effective fight either.
Junior Doctor leaders need to be bold and brave and advance a vision of a better, safer contract for the NHS, and put forward a plan of strike actions and protests and stick to it until the government gives them what they want. The privatising, austerity-driven government won’t give NHS staff anything unless we pressure them. Junior Doctors are in a unique and powerful position to strike a blow against the governments plans. Don’t waste it!