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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


Pay battles old and new

by New Worker correspondent

AS LAST YEAR drew to a close, the class struggle seemed to peter out somewhat. The occasion was the failure of the unions representing the majority of people working in the National Health Service to secure a majority for industrial action over a pathetic pay offer due to the turnout being too low, despite the huge demonstrations in their favour across the country at the beginning of August last year.

Whilst the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) wanted a 12.5 per cent rise to make up for a decade of real term cuts, the Government only offered a three per cent increase. The result of a consultative ballot was 89 per cent voting in favour of action short of strike, with 54 per cent favouring strike action. As the turnout for England was a mere 23 per cent (and not much more elsewhere) it does not count according to the Tory laws, which demand a 50 per cent turnout.

The RCN meekly said it would start thinking about what to say about its contribution to the independent NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) that will report in May. Sounding very tough, the RCN said it was very still in dispute with the Welsh and Scottish Governments over this years’ deal. Whilst NHS workers in Scotland got a magnificent four per cent, the RCN says this is still a poor deal but was again unable to take action due to a low turnout in the ballot.

Julie Lamberth, chair of the RCN Scotland Board, said: “We left the cabinet secretary in no doubt that we remain in a trade dispute as we influence negotiations on your pay that the Scottish Government has committed to for the 2022–23 pay award.”

This lamentable state of affairs cannot be entirely blamed on the requirement for a 50 per cent turnout to make industrial action legal. The Tory trade union laws were of course designed to make life difficult for unions. Although the 50 per cent rule is a deliberate obstacle, it is one that could have been overcome however, had there been the mass enthusiasm for industrial action which is essential for any strike to have the remotest chance of success. The fact that 77 per cent of the membership could not even be bothered to tick a ballot paper to give a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to two simple questions strongly suggests that action endorsed by a majority of a small minority would soon fizzle out. Another factor was that workers had already had the three per cent imposed on them, and that as it was already in their pay packets a modest bird in the hand would be better than two in the bush.

unity

Although the RCN is not noted for its militancy, as one would expect from a union which has the Queen for a patron, the main problem is a lack of unity amongst the health unions. Apart from the nurses’ RCN there are small specialist unions for radiologists and pedicurists amongst others, to say nothing of the doctor’s British Medical Association (BMA); however GMB, Unison and Unite represent the bulk of the low-paid workers such as cleaners, paramedics and ambulance drivers.

killed off

A GMB spokesperson has blamed Government deliberate dragging-out of pay talks, which she says killed off momentum towards strike action, adding that “the lack of co-ordination across NHS unions, who were split on the question of going straight to a legal strike ballot, caused confusion and eroded confidence among workers”.

She also deplored the lack of union reps to carry out the necessary task of convincing members that industrial action is necessary and winnable. A daily shop-floor presence is worth much more than occasional visit from national HQ or regional offices.

The next round of pay negotiations begin soon, however. GMB says there will need to be a 20 per cent rise to compensate for the reduction in real pay since the golden age when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. They wisely warn that the only way the Pay Review Body or the government will listen to NHS workers is a campaign that includes strike action.

There are of course no shortage of pay battles that have to be fought. Paddy Lillis, General Secretary of the shop-workers’ union USDAW, in addition to demanding better protection from COVID‑19 and from customers, says that: “With rising living costs, we need improved pay and conditions. USDAW is campaigning for a new deal for workers based on at least £10 per hour immediately and secure contracts.” It will be interesting to see if any actual action takes place to secure these objectives.

On certain occasions what you have campaigned for turns out to have certain disadvantages. On such is the shock expressed by the Wales Trades Union Congress (WTUC) at the decision by the principality’s Labour Government to enforce their strict new rules about home working and to ban large sporting events.

worrying

Wales TUC General Secretary Shavanah Taj hit out at plans to fine workers, not bosses, up to £60 for not working at home when they are able to: “A worker is not responsible for their place of work, their employer is. This sets a really worrying precedent that the responsibility is somehow shared, and is at best naïve. We hope Welsh Government urgently repeals this to remove the fine on workers.”

She went on to moan that the WTUC was kept in the dark, despite being at a meeting of the Welsh Government Shadow Social Partnership Council (SSPC) just two days before the decision was announced.

low-paid

At the same time she also pointed out that the sudden Welsh ban on live sporting events from Boxing Day would hit low-paid and precarious workers. “The decision to stop live sports events at short notice with no mention of the workforce shows a real failure to consider the people that staff these events who will now lose their shifts – and most likely their pay – just days before Christmas.”