Industrial action over nurses’ pay would most likely take the form of demonstrations, rather than strikes, in recognition of the “special” nature of healthcare, the leader of major union has told Nursing Times.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of the union Unison, said his members were “angry” about the government’s attempt to hold down NHS pay and ministers were wrong if they thought people “will not stand up for themselves” over the issue.
Delegates will debate calls for a campaign of industrial action in protest at the decision by the government to impose a deal where staff eligible for an incremental rise will receive no separate cost of living pay increase, while those at the top of their band will receive 1% rises for two years.
“It could take many different forms over a long period but we will not let our members go through another pay freeze”
Speaking to Nursing Times today, Mr Prentis said: “It is quite clear the government believe people are so ground down by austerity that people will not stand up for themselves over pay.
“I think something totally different,” he said.” The issue of pay is shooting up the agenda and our members are angry about what is still being paid to chief execs, and senior staff, and in the private sector.”
Asked whether he thought strike action was likely, he said he recognised that frontline healthcare staff were in a “special place”, compared to many other workers, due to patient care responsibilities.
“We think action could be demonstrative, and [we] get everyone in the hospital to stand outside and get the local communities and the press involved,” he told Nursing Times.
“We also think it may take the form of non-co-operation where this will not harm patient safety but will impinge on demands of the Department of Health,” he said. “It could take many different forms over a long period but we will not let our members go through another pay freeze.”
Questioned about the effectiveness of such action, Mr Prentis said he thought it had the potential to “generate more and more support for health workers” among the public, at a time when minsters were starting to think seriously about future votes.
“I doubt, considering all the problems that this government has, that they will want a health dispute going into this next general election,” he said.
Mr Prentis paid tribute to 150 “brave” learning disabilities nurses in Doncaster, who last week completed their third strike over planned changes to pay, terms and conditions.
As revealed by Nursing Times in February, the group are in dispute with their employer Care UK over changes to enhanced pay that it wants to introduce since taking over the running of their service.
He also called out to other unions – identifying the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association – to “stand with us” on industrial action over pay “Our message is that we are a lot stronger if we are altogether,” he told Nursing Times.
“If our members are now strong enough to take a stand on such a derisory pay offer, then my commitment to you is that all the resources of our union will be mobilised in your support”
Earlier in the day, Mr Prentis had used his conference address to attack health secretary Jeremy Hunt over pay as well as other issues, including NHS reform and the role of the private sector.
He said “no one is falling for his claim that it costs too much” to give most health staff a “paltry” 1% pay rise, Mr Prentis said, adding that over a third of NHS staff were paid less than £21,000 a year
“It’s a question of priorities,” he said. “Why stump up the cash to pay staff a decent wage when you could waste it on more pointless top-down reorganizations?”
He stated: “If our members are now strong enough to take a stand on such a derisory pay offer, and I for one believe the time is now, then my commitment to you is that all the resources of our union will be mobilised in your support.”