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Christina McAnea: 'Unison says yes to strike action and knows it can be done safely'

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We will be encouraging members to vote “yes” in our strike ballot, says Christina McAnea

Unison will be balloting its members in health for strike action this year and I will not apologise for that - because this is not a fight of our making.

The decision by the health secretary Jeremy Hunt to refuse to pay even the paltry 1% from the NHS Pay Review Body was deliberately provoking, and it doesn’t end there. He intends to repeat this next year too. This means NHS workers in England - including those at the top of the pay band who got the 1% - will be on the same rate of pay in April 2016 as they were in April 2013. That’s because, even for the minority of staff who get this, it is unconsolidated, which means it doesn’t get paid on unsocial hours, overtime, call-out or standby payments, or count towards pensions - and it will disappear from pay after two years.

“We have members - NHS workers - who have to rely on food banks”

Inflation has continued to rise since 2011 and the value of pay has fallen by around 12%. Of course, NHS staff already know this - they live with the reality of this every day as they struggle to make their pay stretch so they can look after their families and pay their bills. We have members - NHS workers - who have to rely on food banks.

If Unison members vote for strike action, we will not be asking them to “abandon patients”. The reality is we would always provide emergency cover and give notice to employers so they can make contingency plans. To suggest otherwise is seriously misleading and will be used to blackmail staff, especially registered staff, into thinking they can’t take industrial action. The law on this is quite clear: professional codes of conduct for nurses, occupational therapists, paramedics, physiotherapists, radiographers and other registered staff do not preclude industrial action.

Does this mean a paramedic can walk away in the middle of treating a patient having a heart attack? Or that a nurse can walk off a ward and leave babies uncared for in a neonatal unit, or abandon patients in the middle of a procedure? Or that a porter could leave a patient on a trolley in the middle of a corridor? Of course it doesn’t. What it does mean is that employers should make plans in advance to ensure they can cover essential and emergency treatment and should ensure they schedule elective and non-urgent treatment for those times when no industrial action is planned. Where staff are involved in an ongoing procedure with a patient at the start of a strike period they would obviously continue to work and only take part in the action when it was safe for the patient and for themselves to do so.

I was disappointed at some of the comments that were made at the RCN congress last month, but no NHS worker should be intimidated into thinking they can’t take strike action. The truth is that taking action to get better pay for NHS staff is important for patients. The evidence is clear - staff who are well motivated, and who feel valued and engaged can have a positive impact on patient outcomes and even mortality rates.

A demoralised and angry workforce is not good for the NHS. Yes there is a cost to giving staff fair pay but there is an even greater cost to not giving it.

As trade union leaders we need to give NHS staff confidence, we must not undermine them. Unison will be campaigning over the summer to encourage members to vote “yes” in our strike ballot. I realise that not all NHS unions will ballot for strike action, but I would urge all of them to work with us to get fair pay. Frightening or blackmailing NHS workers into thinking they have no choice is playing into the government’s hands.

Christina McAnea is Unison head of health and chair of the NHS Staff Council

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Well said Christina! The important thing now is to maximise turnout in the ballot. Nurses contemplate industrial action precisely because they care for people and patients. This is the case we need to make loud and clear.

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