Almost 12 months have passed since health unions in Northern Ireland began negotiations on pay, terms and conditions. These discussions began as a result of the acceptance of the Agenda for Change Refresh Agreement by health unions in England and Wales in 2018. This rotten deal 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 sidelined unions into detailed circular meetings. These protracted and unconstructive discussions have been profoundly frustrating for health workers.

In this context, health unions have moved to a ballot for industrial action, with the Royal College of Nursing potentially heading for the first strike in its 103-year history. Health workers want to see a united and combative approach, with coordinated action to maximise impact, in order to win significant pay rises with no strings attached. Anything less will feed into already existing cynicism about the unions’ seriousness, born out of numerous retreats and capitulations on pay going back almost ten years.

Union leaders now have their work cut out to try and rebuild the confidence and faith of their members. These ballots should be seized with both hands by union activists and members as an opportunity to mount a fight for a real pay rise. Health workers should enthusiastically take ownership of this ballot through their union and branch structures and drive it forward. They should place demands and hold their leaders to account and ensure industrial action that is consistent, coordinated and escalated to win the best possible result.

by Pat Lawlor, NIPSA Belfast Health branch (personal capacity)