Thousands march in first move of NHS pay battle

A wave of actions by NHS workers in cities and towns across the country has opened the door for a major struggle against austerity and poverty pay. Kim Wells reports and reflects on yesterday’s protests

Nurses protest in London | Photo by Steve Eason

NHS nurses, junior doctors and allied health and care workers have carried out dozens of coordinated marches around the country to demand a proper pay increase.

Nurses and other health workers began planning protests in late July, after the government’s announcement of a set of public-sector pay rises from which they will be excluded. The government’s announcement provoked an explosion of dissent, with 75,000 joining a Facebook group within the space of a few days to organise protests. Many health workers are particularly furious that the government’s announcement follows a period of several months in which politicians have paid empty lip service to health workers while doing nothing to improve their pay and conditions or ensure their safety at work.

The protest movement has cohered around a clear demand for a 15% pay increase, which would start to redress the impact of a decade of cumulative stagnation.

At least forty marches or protests took place, with the largest being a march of several thousand in Central London. Events of several hundred attendees took place in many more places, including Edinburgh, Newcastle and Bristol. Energetic marches or static protests also took place in many smaller towns. Despite the large numbers of participants, organisers everywhere placed great emphasis on safety and social distancing, counter-acting insinuations by the government and by some figures in the major health unions that the actions would be incompatible with the need to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Nurses protest over pay in London
Nurses protest over pay in London | Photo: Steve Eason

The chants and banners on display underscored the understanding that protecting health workers’ pay is a crucial battlefront in the overall fight to save health and care services from austerity and privatisation. As well as slogans demanding the pay increase (‘What do we want? 15 percent! When do we want it? Now!’), protesters chanted others highlighting the strategic importance of this fight in protecting health services in the long term (‘1, 2, 3-4-5! Keep Our NHS Alive!’)

Protest organisers took great care to ensure that social distancing and all possible safety measures were enforced at the events.

What comes next?

Impressive as they are, this first wave of actions will not be enough to win without a major ongoing further campaign. The protests have been amazingly successful at gathering health workers together under a shared demand, and putting their case before a broader public (despite most of the media refusing to cover the movement in anything like the depth it merits). However, it will require more direct and sustained tactics – probably including strikes or other industrial action in the workplace – to break the government’s insistence on maintaining pay at poverty levels. One obstacle to this is the UK’s restrictive anti-strike laws, although these are sometimes misunderstood: strikes that don’t meet the steep legal criteria are unlawful (i.e., they are not specifically protected under law), but they are not illegal (i.e. they are not forbidden by law or considered a case of criminal wrongdoing); and, of course, history gives many examples of unfair anti-strike laws being broken and made unworkable by workers.

An escalation of tactics on these lines would be likely to meet with reluctance and resistance from many within the formal decision-making hierarchies of the major unions representing health workers. The demand for a 15% pay increase – justified by the deep anger of workers after a decade of wage stagnation – entails an implicit criticism of the woeful pay deals that the leading health unions have agreed to with NHS management over that time period. The health sections of some of the major unions have expressed solidarity with Saturday’s actions, but all of their leaderships wish to avoid a sustained confrontation.

However, this does not mean to say that rank-and-file members of these unions will necessarily be similarly recalcitrant. Many local branches of the established unions supported or even organised and initiated events around the country on Saturday, and most protests will have had a share of flags and banners on display from health workers already organised in one or the other of the larger unions in the health sector (mainly UNISON, Unite, GMB and the Royal College of Nursing). The movement can attract support from grassroots union members in the health and care sector, with or without the support of official leadership figures, and can attract broad popular support and solidarity from the broader population around a struggle against austerity, poverty pay and betrayal by a callous government.

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