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Wednesday 19 October 2022

Strikes are a last resort but this time we have to make the government listen

By Jon Restell

The government's reponse to the multiple crises facing the NHS has been negligent. But ministers will not change course unless forced to do so. That's why I'm asking MiP members to vote yes to industrial action this autumn.

Jon Restell portrait 2021

I have been a trade unionist for 30 years. In all that time I have organised a small handful of strikes. For me, collective representation means doing deals with the employer and then immediately starting work on the next one, righting the mistakes and raising the bar a little higher. A strike seldom features in my thinking and it is never an end itself.

This is how I roll. And I am confident that this is how MiP members want their union to roll in normal times.

But these are not normal times. There are moments in any walk of life, where quiet bargaining and steady progress are overtaken by the scale of the problems, where something more strenuous is needed if we are to overcome those problems.

Three major problems have crashed into the NHS at the same time. First, the pandemic has created huge waiting lists and lowered the standard of care, to the anguish of our members, and depleted the resilience and well-being of staff. Secondly, the cost of living crisis has wiped 10% from incomes in one year (and inflation is widely predicted to go higher again next year). Thirdly, vacancies across the NHS and in all occupational groups are higher than ever before. Half of managers would not recommend their career choice to family and friends, and the picture is the same for other groups. No wonder the Health and Social Care select committee, chaired by the former Conservative health secretary who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, has concluded that the NHS faces “the greatest workforce crisis in its history”.

The government’s response to this workforce crisis has been negligent. Its £1,400 pay award represents less than 5% on salaries. It has ignored the wider retention package sought by the unions on fair pay for extra work and on fair banding. This inadequate response will neither recruit nor retain NHS staff. Not only is the award just half the rate of inflation in double figures, the private sector is easily outcompeting the NHS on pay.  For the lowest paid members of the NHS team, facing energy bills three times higher than last year, even with the new energy cap in place, this award does not touch the sides. Food inflation, for example, is 12%. MiP members see their own staff having to make what we thought were unthinkable choices around food and heating, resulting in NHS employers setting up hardship funds. And their own standard of living has been ravaged. Staff in bands 8 and 9 are getting less than 3% and, for those on the bottom of band 8A, a rise so low people owe their employer money after pension deductions.

If the NHS is to survive, it must overcome its workforce crisis and to do that, it needs a bigger, better pay rise for its staff. The government will not move on its inadequate award unless made to do so. The only way to make it do so is for NHS staff to take industrial action. We want to show solidarity with our lower-paid colleagues and we want to get a fair deal for ourselves. Most of all we want the NHS to have the staff to deliver the standard of care the public desperately needs.

If you work for the NHS in England, you will shortly be asked to vote in UNISON’s ballot on industrial action. Ballot papers will be sent out on 28 October. If you want to get a better pay rise for yourself vote Yes. If you want to show solidarity with your lower-paid colleagues vote Yes. If you want your employer to be able to recruit and retain staff vote Yes. If you are unable to strike but want your colleagues to have the chance to do so, vote Yes. If you intend to leave the NHS, then vote Yes. And if you intend to vote Yes, then urge at least one colleague to Vote Yes too.

These are not normal times. We must do something extraordinary in response.

  • Jon Restell is chief executive of Managers in Partnership. Members in Scotland are already voting on industrial action. A ballot is also being planned for members in Wales.

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