Now for action!

The RCN conference on Tuesday showed the extent of healthworkers’ anger towards the government and the system itself. The danger is that union leaders will cave in and settle for some shabby pay-cutting deal. Only rank and file workers can make sure they do not get away with it

THIS WEEK’S step by the Royal College of Nursing towards ending its no-strike rule is a victory for all healthworkers. It is indicative of the anger that all workers feel towards this corrupt Tory government and the barbaric system they serve.

But the preparation for action has only just begun. Congress delegates voted to ballot the 300,000 membership on whether the rule should be replaced by a clause allowing legal and limited industrial action, falling short of a strike. The rule change would require a two-thirds majority.

Nurses, like all other healthworkers, are angry and frustrated at being overworked, underpaid and abused in what is daily becoming a more demoralising and stressful occupation. As cutbacks arising from the government’s market reforms bite ever deeper, the health ‘service’ has been reduced to cut-throat competition for contracts. Everything must be done on the cheap, and it is the patients - ‘customers’, as they are now pathetically dubbed - who suffer.

Not only the working class, but just about the whole population understands - often through bitter, personal experience - how bad things are in the NHS. There is overwhelming public support for the healthworkers, and the government’s popularity is at an all-time low.

Yet the leaders of neither the RCN nor Unison, the main health trade union, have the slightest intention of using this huge reservoir of support to smash through the government-imposed ‘award’ of a national one percent rise, plus a possible further two percent through local negotiations.

Unison’s official claims are for between eight and fifteen percent, depending on the particular group of workers. But this has been quietly dropped in favour of a straight three percent nationally-agreed increase for everybody. This would represent a wage cut in real terms. Since its ‘Fair pay day’ on March 30, Unison has been embroiled in a long drawn out consultation exercise with its members on the question of industrial action.

While Unison’s position at least has the ‘merit’ of insisting on a no-strings national deal, the RCN’s Christine Hancock has stated that a three percent formal offer, without conditions, by 300 of the 485 health trusts would be considered a victory by her. Presumably the remaining 185 with their tens of thousands of RCN members can be quietly ignored. That situation, according to Ms Hancock, would be “better than the anarchy and mess that is around at the moment”.

Both organisations see their ballots as merely a means of putting pressure on the authorities to compromise. If the leaders have their way, their members’ heart-searching over ways to take industrial action without harming the patients will be for nothing.

NHS managers are in any case pointing out that any industrial action, including the widely backed non-co-operation in clerical tasks, will harm patients in the long run. Measures which affect the trusts’ efficiency, they say, will lead to further deterioration in healthcare.

Lacking any leadership from their unions, many healthworkers are demoralised, believing there is little possibility of any action being effective. But it is now absolutely clear that health-workers need to go far beyond the limits set by the union bureaucrats to win their dispute. This would involve taking it into their own hands - organising not only the necessary strikes, but also the emergency cover. Such a campaign would have to be linked to demands for the kind of health service we need and would have the potential to mobilise whole sections of the working class.

It would require vision and imagination. But there is no easier path to victory.