Members of Unison have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ballot on industrial action, including striking, over the government’s pay offer for NHS staff.
NHS pay was debated this morning at Unison’s annual health conference in Brighton, with the union’s health service group executive putting forward an emergency motion to allow a ballot for industrial action – both strike action and action short of striking, such as working to rule.
Speaking in favour of the motion, Unison head of heath Christina McAnea said: “This motion lays out a strategy to campaign, to agitate and to fight for fair pay for all staff in the NHS.
“Members neither strike often or easily. But this time it feels that we have no choice,” she told delegates.
“So the motion is calling for a ballot – not an indicative ballot but an industrial action ballot for strike action and action short of strike action,” said Ms McAnea.
Following an emotional debate, the motion was passed overwhelmingly. Most members spoke in favour of strike action, but three speakers also spoke out against striking, though all noted their anger over pay.
It is understood that such a ballot is likely to take place in the summer, though an exact date is yet to be decided.
“I know that as well as being incredibly angry, many members will be nervous or reluctant to take strike action”
Any subsequent strike would be likely to follow various other forms of industrial action, such as working to rule, Nursing Times understands.
Prior to that, Ms McAnea said the union would engage in activities to draw attention to the issue, but that did not require a ballot. “We will be starting with protests and action days,” she told delegates.
The first of these “protest days” is scheduled to take place on 5 June with another expected the following month.
Ms McAnea said: “Let’s have a day all health unions can be part of and use this day to build support for a resounding ‘yes’ vote when we ballot for strike action.”
However, it is unclear at this stage whether the ballot on industrial action will be UK-wide, given the different pay offer in Scotland, but it will definitely cover England. Any such decision will be dependent on discussions between the union’s leaders and its regional offices.
The effectiveness of any such action is likely to be dependent on whether other unions – most notably the Royal College of Nursing, but also Unite and the GMB – agree to work together.
Yesterday Unison general secretary Dave Prentis called on the Royal College of Nursing and other health unions to “stand shoulder to shoulder” in opposing the government’s pay deal.
The vote follows the government’s decision to reject a 1% pay deal for all NHS staff in England. Instead, the government is attempting 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.
In comparison, the Scottish government has said all NHS staff on Agenda for Change in Scotland will get 1%. The situation in Wales and Northern Ireland remains unclear.
Ms McAnea added: “We need to prepare and we need more detailed discussions in regional and devolved health committees about who will be balloted, scope, timing and types of action.
“If you carry this motion prepare for a long campaign,” she told delegates. “A campaign that will include a mixture of action that everyone and all unions can be part of whether they’ve balloted or not.”
She acknowledged that strike action was often a difficult issue for frontline healthcare staff, especially nurses.
“I don’t underestimate how difficult this will be – I know that as well as being incredibly angry, many members will be nervous or reluctant to take strike action.
“But we’re all leaders in this hall,” she told the conference in her motion-supporting speech. “And we all need to take this campaign out to members and explain the issues, let’s harness that very real anger and turn it into action.”
This afternoon fellow union Unite confirmed it would be consulting its 100,000 NHS members over possible strike action over pay.
This will take the form of an indicative ballot, which is expected to take place next month.