Nurses strike back against attack on pay

The nationwide fightback of nurses and other health workers against the government’s attack on their pay sees demonstrations across the country this Saturday. Kim Wells argues that this is the first major battle in an upcoming struggle to protect our health and care services, and could provide a boost to wider resistance to profits being put before lives and livelihoods.

Nurses marching in London to demand a pay rise
Photo by Steve Eason

A nationwide backlash is underway against the government’s stealth attack on nurses’ pay.

On Wednesday, thousands of nurses, other health, care and allied workers, along with their supporters, rallied in Whitehall at short notice, and dozens of events have been organised around the country for Saturday 8 August. The movement is coalescing around the demand for a 15% pay increase, a figure that would start to meaningfully redress a decade of below-inflation increases and rising workloads due to general under-funding and under-staffing of the NHS.

The trigger for the current wave of protests was an announcement by the government on 21 July that around 900,000 public-sector employees will receive a significant, above-inflation pay rise, with nurses and many other health workers noticeably excluded.

This will leave most nurses and many other health, care and support staff languishing on non-existent or below-inflation annual pay rises – real terms cuts to pay. This is in line with the deeply unpopular and discredited ‘pay deal’ accepted in June 2018 by the leaderships of the major health unions, which effectively surrendered to several years of real-terms cuts, forfeiting the potential to organise strikes or resistance. The climbdown led by the union leaderships reached a peak in July 2018, when the then-Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing sent an email to members claiming to have only become aware ‘in the last 24 hours’ that most nurses would be receiving less than half as much of an increase as they had been led to believe when voting to accept the deal.

In contrast with the bureaucratic negotiating approach that failed disastrously in 2018, the current movement is drawing on the energy and anger of huge numbers of rank-and-file health workers. Within days of being set up, a Facebook group to organise for a pay increase gathered over 70,000 members. Most of the protests happening around the country on 8 August have been called by first-time organisers, though drawing endorsements from more established campaign groups and union bodies.

Health workers’ own experiences in recent months give them every reason to be furious. Over 500 health and care workers and support staff have died so far of Covid-19, while the government failed, or refused, to organise basic measures like adequate Personal Protective Equipment. The systematic prioritisation of business interests above public health now threatens a second wave which could be even more lethal. Health and care workers who have died have been disproportionately people of colour and migrant workers. Many in the current protest movement are taking inspiration from the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, pointing out the jarring racial inequalities affecting pay, conditions and safety across the sector.

This is also the first round in an upcoming series of high-stakes battles to defend our health and care services from the government’s sick and opportunistic attacks. From a fresh round of private-sector-friendly ‘restructuring’, to the demand that GPs move appointments permanently online, the Tories are trying to use the destruction and confusion wrought by Covid-19 as a chance to continue their step-by-step dismantlement of free universal healthcare.

If the government succeed in carrying out this contemptible attack on health workers at a moment of such sensitivity, it could embolden them to be even more savage in their attacks on working-class lives and livelihoods in the months and years to come, as they try to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on profits. On the other hand, a victory for health workers over pay could strike a blow at their destructive agenda for the NHS and embolden all of the emergent struggles resisting the Conservatives and their toxic agenda.

Attend your nearest protest on 8 August! More are being added over time and lists may change, but lists are being collated in the following places:

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