Socialist Alternative

Nurses speak out: ‘only joint union action and public support can see us through now

Below, Socialist Alternative carries an interview with two key health union activists, Jac Berry and Holly Turner.  Holly is a Learning Disability Nurse, GMB Rep and a leading member of the Facebook group, NHS Workers Say No to Public Sector Pay Freeze.  Jac is a Nurse, a member of Unison’s National Executive Committee and has been working on the Intensive Care Unit of her hospital through most of the pandemic. Both were speaking in a personal capacity.

Currently, the major health unions, UNISON, UNITE, GMB, and RCN, along with BMA are balloting their members on the 3% pay offer in a major consultation exercise.  Once the result is known, and if members have voted in support of action, a formal strike ballot will follow, most likely towards the end of September

What is the mood in the workplace just now

Holly:  Morale has never been lower.  The hospital in our Trust was inspected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) who said staffing levels were dangerously low despite a record number of vacancies.  I work in mental health with young people but the CQC closed the hospital to new admissions due to our staffing levels.  We are just frustrated, exhausted and demoralised.

Jac: I work across the whole Trust and it is the same here as well.  Staff are exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed.  We are constantly busy and have not had time to recover from the last two waves.  It is really heavy going on the floor and all the staff are ‘done in ‘ and ‘weary’.

What are the immediate priorities for action over pay

Holly: We need the public onside and voicing their support; and we need all the unions to push hard in the workplace.  Joint union action and public support can pull us through.  We activists are exhausted and have had a difficult task to stay in touch with our members because of Covid restrictions

Jac: Due to intense work pressures, pay is the last thing staff are thinking about.  The response so far has been muted but that is because members expect that  the union will be able to sort it out.  We have not been asked directly by the union to do anything for such a long time.  There has also been a big turnover in staff and the NHS is now even more dependent on overseas workers largely from South East Asia or the Caribbean and they usually only plan to stay for 3 years and most do not see the need to be in the union.  This is having an impact on the dynamic of the workplace.

Holly: It is now really important that we all get out there and speak to our colleagues because staff are sometimes too busy to read emails.  This has to start from the unions. We need leaflets, posters, stalls on the ground and in every ward.  Members need to be more aware of the ballot dates and we need to communicate why this is so important.  This is not just about Covid, but the last decade of cuts and closures  Our fight in reality is to safeguard the future of the NHS for ourselves,  our children and our grandchildren.

Jac: The employer is telling staff that the pay deal has been sorted and that we will receive the 3% in next month’s pay packet, backdated for a month.  This has to be counteracted with a clear fighting message to vote No.  The majority will vote to reject the offer but we will have to work on the turnout.  We need a huge vote of opposition.

What should we be demanding of the unions to win the pay claim?

Jac: As Holly has said, we need workplace organising, ward by ward and department by department.  We have to get the message out there of needing to reestablish a tradition of struggle.  Because everyone is so tired and worn down, the mood needs to be lifted with coordinated and sustained action from the unions.

Holly: We need more cross union working. All the unions must tangibly work with each other.  It is frustrating that this has so far not happened.  The unions have not coordinated their ballot schedules which would have been so much easier.  Members find it confusing when they have not had their ballot paper but another colleague has, just because they are in separate unions.  We will need a cohesive plan for working together should we move to a formal strike ballot.  There has not been a tradition of collective struggle as Jac has said; we need to go back to the beginning and completely re educate our members about the need for collective action.

Jac: Holly is right, any action needs to be coordinated across unions, involving the largest possible number of workers from across the NHS in a united fight for a restorative pay rise.  Hopefully this can be linked up with other public sector workers seeking to break the Tory pay freeze.

Socialist Alternative demands :

  • In the event of a No vote in the indicative ballot, for an intensified and coordinated industrial action ballot across all the unions
  • For coordinated action between all the health unions in every workplace and every ward
  • Mobilise public support through workplace and town centre stalls, local rallies and a huge national demonstration in support of NHS staff
  • For an immediate and substantial pay rise across the NHS and Social Care sector. 
  • Link up the struggle for improved pay across the whole of the public sector, leading to a generalised offensive against the Tories’ pay freeze