For years health and social care workers have been treated with disdain by politicians in Westminster and Stormont. While they were happy to call health and social care workers “heroes” and clap on doorsteps during the pandemic, their actions revealed their real attitude. Nothing has been done to address dangerously unsafe staffing levels – they have only made matters worse. They have continued to run down vital NHS services and to add to the insult, a series of below-inflation pay offers i.e. pay cuts. Their disdain was laid bare with the Tories’ chairperson describing workers taking strike action as “helping Putin.”
We all know the health services are at breaking point. Of course health workers care about their patients and will ensure strike action does not put anyone at risk of harm. However real harm is already being caused daily as a result of chronic underfunding. This is turning a once universal health service, free at the point of use, into a service struggling to provide emergency and urgent health care, despite the effort of NHS staff. This is no accident but a conscious choice by successive governments and they must be held responsible!
The NHS was won and built by working-class people against the entrenched opposition of the Tories and the establishment at Stormont. Today the same forces are running it down and it is up to NHS workers, patients and ordinary people to defend it. We need a mass struggle to defend and implement bold measures to reverse all privatisation and kick the profiteers out of the NHS for good. We also need mass public investment to rebuild and expand the NHS, including improving mental health and other under-resourced services.
The Tories, the press and others tell us there isn’t the money, but the top 350 companies have seen their profits mushroom by 73% since the pandemic. Socialists say we shouldn’t let that money lie in the bank accounts of this super-rich elite but take the money off these profiteers and utilise it to invest in decent services, pay and to transform society.
How can health workers win?
- We’re stronger when we strike together! Unions must coordinate action.
The lack of coordination by the key health unions means members of one union will be on strike while their colleagues from another cross their picket line, only for a repeat in reverse a few days later! This is a serious problem that will impact morale and make action less effective. The leadership of the health unions should immediately discuss and come up with a common plan of action including all health workers (except those derogated) striking on the same days. Such a plan of action shouldn’t mean going at the pace of the most conservative union leaders but at a pace necessary to win the strike. The people best placed to decide are ordinary members and we need to build coordination from below with workers coming together, across unions, to discuss how to take the strikes forward. This should take the form of democratically organised workplace and Trust-based strike committees. Undemocratic anti-union laws have cut across industrial action in many workplaces in Britain, particularly in Unison. Affected workers should be re-balloted as soon as possible so they can join and strengthen the strike action. Of course, it is not just health workers striking we are now seeing a wave of strikes demanding real pay rises, we need to generalise these struggles by coordinating these strikes.
- Mobilise public support for the health strikes
Opinion polls show a majority support health workers’ pay demands, believe the government has the money to meet these demands and oppose the Tories’ plans for more draconian anti-strike laws. The vast majority of ordinary people have genuine respect for the role of NHS and other key workers during the pandemic. They are also prepared to take action to defend services. There have been important protests against the closure of GP surgeries and 1,000 attended a public meeting in Fermanagh against the closure of emergency surgery services at SWAH earlier this month. This significant reserve of support should be mobilised including by the health unions and others such as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) by calling protests across the north and Britain to support the demands of health care workers.
- Organise agency workers
While we are told there is no money for pay raises, almost 1 billion has been handed over to agencies rather than hiring permanent staff. Health workers have carefully planned industrial action to keep patients safe. The use of less experienced and unfamiliar agency staff negatively impacts patient health and well-being. Health unions cannot allow the lack of organising of agency workers to compromise industrial action. Neither can they ignore the reality that many health service workers rely on improved wages and additional hours available through agency employment. Sadly, the stability, security and good working conditions previously offered by permanency in the Trusts have been undermined by staffing shortages and overbearing workloads. Health staff are being driven into the arms of profiteering agencies by low pay and brutal working conditions. This process serves those who would see the health service privatised. Alongside fighting for decent pay, terms and conditions the unions must demand, as an emergency measure, the immediate transfer of all agency staff to the NHS with special rates of pay for all workers in areas operating under crisis conditions. Health unions must focus serious energy and resources on the unionising and organising of agency workers.
- No faith in Stormont politicians
Politicians should be reminded of their record when they visit picket lines for photo opportunities. Why did they offer healthcare workers years of below-inflation pay offers? Why did they all agree to implement the Bengoa report, seen by trade union activists as a “blueprint for privatisation”?
Politicians here have overseen decades of cuts to our public health care system while private health care providers, using NHS equipment and resources, have been allowed to make obscene profits. This “independent” sector is in truth incredibly dependent on the NHS to ensure its profits as it cherry-picks and focuses on lucrative procedures while poaching staff who have been trained with public resources. Instead of facilitating profiteers, private assets should be taken into public ownership to help us deal with the mess in our health service created by Westminster and Stormont.
Everything healthcare workers have won they have had to fight for. Healthcare workers won pay parity in 2019 after successive health ministers – unionists and nationalists broke with it. In reality, none of the main political parties represents or stand up for the interests of healthcare workers or working-class people. That is why the Socialist Party believes it is necessary for the trade union movement not to have a cosy relationship with the Stormont parties, but to seek to build an alternative to them based on uniting working-class people.
Cost of survival crisis: We won’t pay! We need a 24-hour general strike
The recent budget announcement by the Secretary of State is a declaration of war on working people. Despite the rhetoric, it means massive cuts to public services in health, education and in our communities. “Revenue-raising measures” means not progressively taxing the rich but regressive taxes on working-class people, particularly water charges. All of this during a cost of survival crisis which is expected by next month to have landed 76% of the population in fuel poverty and a sharp rise in families that are destitute i.e. unable to eat or heat.
But working class people have shown they are prepared to fight back. Globally we have seen inspiring revolutionary waves in some of the most dictatorial regimes such as Iran and even the beginning of protest on a large scale in China. Across Europe, workers in many countries have taken to widespread strike action often with health workers at the forefront. In the last month there have been general strikes in Belgium and Greece. In Britain and Northern Ireland, not a day passes without some section of workers being out on strike in what has been described as a “general strike in slow motion.”
The Socialist Party argues the struggles should be broadened to involve other workers, and plans to escalate action should be developed. Crucially, we need to bring these struggles together. Action of all workers in the struggle should be coordinated, including in a well-organised 24-hour general strike. If the bodies supposedly responsible for coordinating action refuse to do so then ordinary trade union reps must begin that process from below.
We need to build a working-class movement that is prepared to fight on all fronts. So for example, if they decided to make working-class people pay through water chargers they would face mass resistance as they did previously both here and in the South when such plans were met with mass resistance as thousands organised non-payment campaigns. Crucially, that means fighting politically. Workers on the picket lines, Protestants, Catholics and others, stabd united. But we still live in a deeply divided society in which sectarian parties try to create division. We need to build a cross-community socialist alternative that can build on the unity of workers on picket throughout society.
Capitalism in 2022 offers record breaking inflation, economic disaster, war, poverty, extreme weather events due to climate change and ongoing division, oppression and exploitation. Covid has shown who makes society function and who ensures essential services are delivered. It was workers who displayed phenomenal determination, ingenuity, sacrifice and solidarity. Compared to the pursuit of private profit, these values form a far stronger basis on which to organise not only health and social care but also other public services and society as a whole. This is what we mean by a socialist society – one in which the profit motive is replaced by collective ownership of wealth and resources by all of us and democratic planning.