By Cerys Falvey
The proposed 1% pay-rise for all NHS staff in Britain – a pay-cut in real terms – has rightfully led to widespread anger across a workforce who have been on the frontline in fighting the pandemic.
The Tories claim a higher pay increase would be unaffordable at the present moment. However, given that they have squandered £22 billion on an essentially nonexistent track-and-trace service, and spent £12 billion on contracts with the private sector for PPE which never actually materialised, these excuses are unlikely to work on nurses whose wages have dropped an average of 7.4% in the last decade. In the same period, MPs have been awarded a 23.4% increase.
It is unsurprising that a recent poll revealed that 97% of NHS staff don’t trust the Tories with the NHS. The government are currently praising themselves for the successful rollout of the vaccine programme, but then they deliver a kick in the teeth for the staff who have been working round the clock to make this a reality.
In Northern Ireland, Finance Minister Conor Murphy has indicated that, while most public sector staff will only get 1%, health workers can expect a somewhat larger pay-rise. However, given the nature of the Stormont draft budget, it will likely only be marginally less derisory.
Unite has called for a pay-rise of 15% or £3,000 per annum for all health staff, which ever is larger. This is an entirely reasonable demand which the Socialist Party supports and all trade unions in health should rally around. This demand also needs to be translated into a plan of action to win. It is positive that the Royal College of Nursing has already put aside a sizable amount of money to support industrial action.
In Northern Ireland, the health strikes in December 2019 and January 2020 proved the mass support which exists for the NHS and its staff. Both the Westminster government and the Stormont Executive have been forced into U-turn after U-turn over the course of the pandemic under pressure from below, including from organised action by workers in sectors like education. If health workers engage in a battle for decent pay, safe staffing and the reversal of cuts and privatisation, and if the wider working class is mobilised behind them, they can win.