The overwhelming endorsement of strike action by members of both the RCN and Unison is a clear indication that health workers are fed up with years of falling pay and inadequate staffing levels. They are likely to be joined by health workers in NIPSA and Unite, whose ballot is ongoing, as well as other unions in health. This comes over 12 month after health unions in Northern Ireland began negotiations with management on pay, terms and conditions. These discussions began after the acceptance of a rotten pay deal by health unions in England and Wales, which was sold as a major win for health workers. However, it became apparent that significant pay-rises were imaginary for the majority, while negative changes to terms and conditions were implemented.
Over the last year, the Department of Health has twisted and turned at every meeting with health unions to undermine any real progress. They have driven pay discussions into the sand and side-lined unions into detailed circular meetings. These protracted and unconstructive discussions have been profoundly frustrating for health workers. Correctly, the hypocrisy of the DUP in stating they support the health workers after they voted against pay-rises in Westminster has been highlighted. But they are not alone. All the main parties have signed up to pay-restraint, cuts and privatisation through programmes like Agenda for Change and Transforming Your Care.
In the Pay Review Body Report in 2017, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill continued to endorse these arrangements, stating that “the NI Executive has endorsed the principle of adherence to the UK government’s public sector pay policy and, therefore, any proposals will be constrained by HM Treasury’s call for future pay restraint.” Politicians should be reminded of this when they attempt to visit picket lines for photo opportunities. In reality, none of the main political parties represent or stand up for the interests of working-class people.
That is why the Socialist Party believes it is necessary for the trade union movement not to have a cozy relationship with Stormont parties, but to seek to build an alternative based on uniting working-class people.
Build coordinated action to win
The Socialist Party will support all action taken by health workers to fight low pay and unsafe staffing levels, including action called by separate unions, such as the RCN strike on the of 18th December or the work-to-rule by Unison, beginning on the 25th of November. At the same time, we believe that action will be most effective if there is meaningful coordination between all the health unions. The experience of recent public sector strikes shows that one day is not enough to win a real victories. We must be prepared to have a sustained campaign of escalating action.
We will also think it is important health workers link up with and show solidarity with the industrial struggles of civil servants, university staff and potentially postal workers, despite the undemocratic High Court ruling against their planned action. Maximum unity will strengthen the hands of all workers engaged in these battles. It is important that attempts by management to pit health worker against other workers are clearly rejected.
We must reject the idea that there is not enough money to go around. For example, the top ten richest people in Northern Ireland have a combined wealth of £5.24 billion. Money can always be found when it suits the political establishment’s priorities. There was no lack of money when it came to bailing out the banks. There was no lack of money when it came to Stormont’s pay-day loan to make thousands of public sector workers redundant. There is never a lack of money when it comes to war and so on. We need to fight for investment to provide real pay-rises and a living wage for all health workers, overcome staffing shortages and provide services that meet need, as well as kicking the private profiteers out of our NHS.