Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Unite must call strike action against the Pay Cap, and unite with the RCN in its fight

It is welcome news that the government is planning to life the pay cap on public sector employees. This has been reported across various media outlets as a major concession, but the details point to this being a very weak offer, with little substance in reality. The pay cap would be removed with an offer of a 2.6% pay rise in line with inflation, and some wage rises targeted at professions which are struggling to recruit and retain; mainly nurses and teachers.

This 2.6% would do little to redress the 10-15% reduction in pay public sector workers have endured over the last decade, and would do little for the lowest paid, for who 2.6% of an already low wage is a marginal amount. 

Unite should take the lead in rejecting this meagre offer, demand a serious pay rise from the government, and back this up with the threat of sustained industrial action. That the government is offering this amount at all is a sign of their weakness. Much more could be achieved by applying public pressure to them via strike action. Now is the time to act.

That is why my branch has passed the following motion calling on Unite to call national industrial action. We need to mobilise all our members in a sustained campaign to take advantage of the governments weak position in order to secure a serious pay rise for our members, and a lifting of the NHS budget restraint which is causing devastating cuts across the NHS.

In light of the government's failure to grant a decent pay rise, and the RCN's indicative ballot for strike action, the branch calls on Unite Health to:

1 Initiate a ballot for strike action against the government's failure to offer a decent pay rise
2 Plan a campaign of strike action to break the pay cap and secure a real terms pay rise for all NHS workers.
3 If the RCN begins a ballot for strike action, Unite Health should begin one ourselves and approach the RCN local and national leadership for joint strike action
4 Make the central argument of the pay campaign that the government must increase NHS funding to meet the needs of patients and staff.

Unite with the RCN

The motion also calls on the union to back the RCN in its fight against the pay cap. In the last six months the RCN has come from far behind to take a leading role in publicly opposing the governments pay cap. They have enthused and activated their members, held an indicative ballot for action for the first time in their history, and held several large rallies which have mobilised a lot of public support, and put the issue of nurses pay on the political agenda.

For these reasons, despite the role it has sometimes played in the past as an organisation willing to negotiate with the government separately and not join in public sector strike action, Unite should be looking to join with the RCN and have a united fight against the pay cap. 

We are already seeing these steps being taken as Unite is supporting the Scrap the Cap Rally organised by the RCN on September 6th.

But Unite can go further, taking a leaf out of the RCN’s book and organising regular rallies to mobilise our much broader NHS membership and building a fight not just for nurses pay, but for pay across the NHS and making the NHS future an active issue in any dispute. Unite can commit to ballot if the RCN does, and threaten the government not just with a nurses strike, but one involving all staff groups in the NHS.

What we cannot allow to happen is the RCN to strike alone, as the Junior Doctors did. The failure of any health unions to call action in solidarity with the Junior Doctors struggle was shameful, and must not be repeated. We have an opportunity to build this unity, we shouldn’t waste it.

Can we beat the Trade Union Act?

There are valid concerns about calling national strike action given the stringent requirements of the Act. Unions must secure a 50% turn out in their ballots for them to be considered legal, and in public services there is an added requirement that 40% of all eligible members vote in favour of strike action. Achieving a 50% turn out in a national ballot is almost unheard of. It has been done before however, most recently by the Junior Doctors securing a 76% turn out with 98% in favour. The RCN’s turn out in their first ever indicative national ballot was 19% with 78% prepared to strike, a respectable result but much too low to beat the act.

What will be required is an active campaign that enthuses the membership and develops the organisation necessary to engineer a large turn out. We need to copy what the junior doctors did and the RCN are doing and organise local and national rallies of our members to build support for action. This will help us reenergise and reorganise branch structures which have been weakened by cuts, demoralisation and lack of a consistent fight back. Holding workplace rallies and meetings, recruiting reps and rebuilding workplace organisation can be done through a focus on building for national action to secure a decent pay rise and protect the NHS. Members have to see the union has a vision for a fight and is wiling to take action. 

Having watched the transformation in the RCN over the last 12 months as they have shifted their focus to campaign against the pay cap, I know this can be done, even with organisations and staff groups which are very unused to campaigning and traditionally more conservative.

The Junior Doctors were a sterling example of bottom up campaigning, with an energetic and young trade union membership effectively leading the campaign, organising marches, appearing on television to argue head to head with government ministers and staging engaging and vibrant stunts and events which drew in the public and won their support. Unite may not have all the same resources at our disposal, but we can copy their best methods and give a lead to members who may be demoralised and unsure of our ability to fight.

If we start now, when the time comes to ballot in several months time, we can have transformed the union in the ways necessary to achieve the high turn out necessary to strike. If we don’t start now, then our defeat in the ballot will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, one made by ourselves.

Can strategic strike action be the answer?

An alternative to national strike action has been talked about in the union, “strategic” or “sectoral” strike action where the union brings out groups of members where they are strongest or most likely to disrupt the functioning of the service. This is more achievable at present than national action, but carries several risks and potential pit falls.

It requires organisation to be strong and willing to go it alone in those sectors, as they will be striking without the active support of the rest of the NHS staff. It could create more problems as the rest of the hospitals and the NHS will still be attempting to function while vital services are shut down. This would put members in those sectors on strike under greater social pressure not to take action, making it more difficult to ensure the high turn outs to make action effective. There is also the psychological and morale factor of only taking sectional action. The Junior Doctors were able to have such a strong, united movement partly because the struggle was explicitly over their contract, and affected all of them. It may be harder to motivate smaller, sectional groups of staff to take strike action in the interests of resisting the pay cap for everyone. Members might rightly ask why they are being ask to make more sacrifices than everyone else in the union.

It may also play in to the governments hands. The reports on the pay rise point to it being aimed at specific sectors which are having recruitment and retention problems. Those sectors able to take strategic/sectoral strike action will probably already be the strongest and better organised, and within the NHS this will most likely be the professional staff. The government may just agree to a pay rise for those sectors on strike. This would deepened the already existing divisions between staff, and would result in the pay campaign having done little to secure a pay rise for the lowest paid groups of staff, and it wouldn’t redress the weakness of union organisation in other staff groups or sectors.

National strike action, while more difficult to achieve, avoids these pitfalls by bringing everyone out, with stronger groups of staff emboldening the more weakly organised or less militant, forcing the hospitals to run Sunday/Emergency only services and freeing up staff to take strike action safely,  without the risk of endangering patients. 

Initiating a strong active pay campaign now, committed to national strike action from the beginning, and building unity with the RCN and other unions already campaigning on this issue, is the key to developing workers anger at the government in to a movement which can deal them a blow in return for all the years of pay restraint and cuts they have forced on staff and patients.  It won’t be easy, but if we start the work now, we can build the sort of campaign that can begin to win victories, and could even pave the way for the fall of the Tory government, and its replacement by Labour.

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