Unison’s Christina McAnea urges nurses to vote “yes” in the ballot for industrial action
Taking strike action is never something that Unison members do lightly. That is perhaps particularly so when it comes to NHS staff. Yet, following the recent vote at TUC Congress, the threat of industrial action across the public sector now looms large.
Unison’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, led the calls for action, saying that enough is enough. Eight long months of frustrating talks over pensions had failed to deliver any real movement.
In truth, the employers were boxed in by the government’s refusal to allow them any real leeway to negotiate.
A date for action has been set for 30 November, which gives us only a few weeks to plan action regarding the NHS. We already have an all-union pensions campaign group that is meeting regularly to plan and coordinate. One of the group’s primary aims is to ensure that patient safety remains paramount.
In the time leading up to the ballot, we will continue to set out our case publicly for a fair pension deal, as well as urging members to vote yes in the ballot.
“Be assured, we would never ask members to put the safety of patients at risk”
It is not that long ago - 2007 - that NHS pensions were renegotiated to ensure that they were fair, affordable and sustainable. Indeed, some staff are still going through the choice exercise and deciding whether to switch or stay with the 1995 section of the NHS pension scheme. Whichever option you take, the changes being proposed by the government will hit just the same. There is no built-in protection from the changes for either scheme.
It is hardly a surprise that staff should feel let down by the government’s proposals to make them pay more and work longer and for less benefit. As the scheme is non-funded, governments of every persuasion have been able to take the money out it to use for its own purposes. The NHS pension scheme is cash rich - it currently generates £2bn more a year than it pays out.
With rising inflation and the second year of a pay freeze, many families will be looking at ways to save money. Raising employees’ contributions by so much and so rapidly has naturally raised fears that cash-strapped staff will simply opt out of the scheme. This is just what the government hopes will happen. It would suit their purposes if staff left the scheme and employers no longer had to contribute.
Staff should stay in the scheme and make sure they have a pension when they retire. Those who retire without saving for a pension will be forced to live on means-tested benefits. They will pay for a short-term gain in long-term pain.
The pensions negotiations in 2007 made it clear that, if the scheme became too expensive, it would be the employees who would pick up the bill. The contributions from employers would be capped and the contributions renegotiated. But government demands for a 3.2% hike are totally unjustified. When it is combined with raising the retirement age to 66, 67, 68 and beyond, it is adding insult to injury.
Many nurses are forced into early retirement well before they reach state retirement age, because of the physical and mental demands of the job. People may be living longer - but what about the quality of life and health for staff who do manage to struggle on until they are eligible to pick up their pension?
NHS workers cannot afford to give in to the government’s pension demands. It is a hard decision to take strike action when you are responsible for the lives and wellbeing of your patients.
Be assured, we would never ask members to put the safety of patients at risk. But we will ask you to vote yes in the ballot - it will be tough, but it would be tougher still to retire to a life on benefits.
Christina McAnea is head of health at Unison