Turn protest into workers' muscle

The time has now passed for building up ‘public support’. NHS workers already enjoy overwhelming support from the working class

THIS WEEK’S ‘fair pay day’, organised by the health trade unions, saw the campaign to win improved pay for NHS workers get off to a sleepy start. Unison, the main health union, has, along with the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives, rejected the government’s derisory one percent offer on behalf of all its nursing, administrative, ancillary and ambulance staff.

But the government is playing a canny game. It has strongly suggested that nurses and midwives in particular can expect a top-up to a full three percent if they engage in local negotiations with NHS trusts. Ministers last week were said to be sending an “open message” to hospital managers that they should pay up.

But Unison’s claim is for eight percent. By starting the ball rolling at such a pathetic level, the government hopes that three percent will appear a fortune, despite a current inflation rate of 3.4%. It will also have succeeded in determining the principle of local negotiations.

These tactics have already made their mark. Lack of militant union leadership has meant that many local branches have already been drawn towards local deals, and many union representatives have been calling for “the full three percent for all, to be funded nationally” - a pay cut in real terms.

National union leaders have focused their campaigning on what a mere one percent would buy for their members: for example, an extra cup of tea a day for ambulance workers and two bags of crisps for a nurse’s lunch. The full three percent would of course mean that this nutritious meal could also be enjoyed for breakfast and tea.

The time has now passed for building up ‘public support’. NHS workers already enjoy overwhelming support from the working class, and real action must now be started if the campaign is to retain any momentum. This will almost certainly depend on health-workers themselves taking the necessary initiatives.

Union bureaucrats do not believe that they can lead a winning campaign through strikes and are not prepared to endanger their funds in the process.

They prefer to wring their hands and await Tony Blair’s election in two years’ time. But the Labour Party now shares the belief that continuing funding of the NHS is impossible under capitalism. Labour’s ‘Commission for Social Justice’ has even suggested that private health insurance should be made compulsory for all workers.

When Labour’s spokesperson Margaret Beckett protested last week at the government’s further back-door moves to privatisation of health through its Private Finance Initiative - obliging trusts to offer many services out to private tender and allowing them to contract out even the core clinical services - health secretary Virginia Bottomley made a telling response.

She stated that the initiative does not oblige the NHS to contract out any clinical services, and continued: “Your letter has again exposed the deep divisions between you and Tony Blair on the subject of health policy.”

In fact there are no real differences amongst Labour’s leadership. Despite paying lip service to defending the health service, ‘new Labour’ will continue the Tory policy of running it down, along with the rest of the welfare state.

By May almost all health grades will have had their pay offers. Workers can rely on nobody but themselves. Whether or not Unison ballots its members, workers should prepare now for co-ordinated action.

But healthworkers’ pay and our health are not just matters for NHS employees.

If healthworkers give a strong lead, they will inspire the confidence and support of all workers.