A rallying call for nurses and other healthcare professionals to threaten strike action if the government’s pay rise cap is not overturned has been made by members of a major health union.
At Unison’s annual health conference in Liverpool this week, members agreed to ramp up their campaign to challenge the government’s annual 1% pay rise cap for NHS workers, although they did not go as far as agreeing to prepare for strike action.
“We need to start a serious campaign for better pay rises. We need to do this now.”
Band 6 nurse
Nurses were among those delegates who called for a “serious pay campaign” with immediate effect, that not only resisted pay restraint, but went “on the attack” to ensure higher wages for all staff on Agenda for Change (AfC) contracts.
Many argued that if negotiations for better wages fell through, staff should be prepared to take industrial action.
A band 6 nurse from Lanarkshire said that improvements to salaries for staff in lower AfC bands fought for by the union were welcome, but that employees at band 5 and 6 level were still suffering.
“As a single person paying a mortgage, with all the cost of living increases of food, fuel etc, I find myself having to make choices with regard to what I eat for my dinner,” she said.
“In 1982 I went on strike against a 4% pay rise. That wasn’t enough in 1982, what makes 1% acceptable now?”
“We need to start a serious campaign for better pay rises. We need to do this now and not some time from next year or in the future… we need to get this pay restraint stopped,” she added.
Another speaker noted pay restraint for NHS staff had been in place for several years now – the seventh successive year.
“In 1982 I went on strike against a 4% pay rise. That wasn’t enough in 1982, what makes 1% acceptable now? We need to stand up and abolish low pay,” he said.
One representative from Manchester said community health mental services in the region were struggling to cope with higher caseloads and smaller teams.
The situation was now “untenable” and staff were “having to pick up the bits,” she said. “It’s about time Unison went on the attack,” she said, adding that she supported local campaigning for strike action.
Pat Heron, chair of the Unison women’s committee, said health service staff were facing a “perfect storm” of increasing national insurance contributions, changes in tax credits, increases in the cost of food and bills, in addition to inflation rises.
“It’s about time Unison went on the attack”
But she said any future strike action must result in more people taking to the picket lines than has previously been the case.
Following the debate, members agreed that a strengthened campaign against the 1% pay cap – due to be in place until 2020 under present government plans – was needed.
This campaign should include lobbying for a least £1 an hour extra for all AfC staff, and ensuring £10 an hour was the minimum wage the NHS can provide.
Unison launched a consultation on its pay campaign strategy at the end of March, following a recommendation by the independent NHS Pay Review Body for a 1% rise in salaries for AfC staff in 2017-18.
At its conference this week, members decided that, regardless of the outcome of that consultation and the result of the election on 8 June, the union should use the review body’s report to help achieve salary improvements.
Although it recommended only a 1% rise in salaries for nurses and other workers, for the first time the pay review body issued a warning to ministers that continuing with below-inflation rises was not sustainable while demands on services and staff increased.
Unison members agreed to use this warning to immediately call on the health secretary after the election to convene urgent talks with unions and devolved countries about ensuring sustainable pay.
Earlier in the conference, Unison’s general secretary had said nurses and other NHS staff are “right to feel angry” over yet another 1% pay rise, describing it as “an insult”.
Dave Prentis said: “Yet again this year you’ve been offered a so-called pay rise of 1%. Yet again public service champions – health heroes like all of you – have been let down.”
Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing is currently consulting its members on how to react to the government’s latest round of pay restraint.