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Health unions are uniting for militant collective action

There is a growing awareness that protecting front-line NHS staff is integral to the struggle to keep healthcare free in this country, writes HELEN O'CONNOR

THE NHSpay15 grassroots campaign which began at the height of the pandemic last summer has created new layers of enthusiastic NHS trade union activists.

It is no coincidence that GMB NHS reps organised and led much of the recent national NHS birthday activity. All skills gained via community organising are easily transferrable into organising strong trade unions within the NHS.

Thanks to the NHSpay15 campaign there is now a growing recognition that the pay, terms and conditions of NHS workers are linked to patient safety because the severe and chronic drain of experienced staff out of the NHS puts patients at risk of harm.

The pandemic has exposed the fact that the billions spent on privatisation do not protect public health. This was illuminated by the PPE and the test, track and trace contract scandals which have cost billions and delivered so little.

Increasing numbers of NHS staff are starting to draw the conclusion that outsourcing doesn’t work for staff or patients and that cuts and deskilling on the front line are leading to a rise in serious untoward incidents (SUIs).

The truth is that the struggle to recruit and retain skilled and experienced staff is growing year on year to the point that core care services are becoming unstable and unsustainable.

A situation has developed in the NHS where core care is being swapped out for trading in estate and other forms of “income generation” that have little to do with providing NHS care for local communities.

The income generated by these market methods is not being put into resolving the staffing crisis on the front line and there is a consistent failure to protect front-line NHS workers from falling deeper into poverty.

The veil is starting to lift as people slowly recognise that something is starting to go deeply wrong inside the NHS which is becoming less accessible to them.

There is more recognition of the importance of building the struggle to keep free healthcare in this country alongside a growing awareness that protecting front-line NHS staff is integral to this struggle. This will continue and accelerate in the coming period.

The cuts and privatisation bulldozer that is breaking up the NHS won’t be brought to a halt by economic logic or by appealing to the good nature of the Tories and the multinational companies — because they are raking in billions as they sell off and degrade what is rightfully ours.

In the coming period there will be new pressures put on NHS staff to be more “flexible” than ever before and staff will be asked to move regularly and work in different wards and even different trusts via “NHS passports.”

Cuts, the increased use of market methods and the ramping-up of outsourcing will create conditions that further undermine patient safety and job roles. This will be accelerated by the plans to deregulate the profession as outlined in the NHS white paper.

Every restructure, every consultation and plan to outsource services is an opportunity to organise trade unionism in the NHS because experience tells us that neither patients nor front-line staff benefit from the upheaval that is now a regular occurrence.

When it comes to organising in the NHS a positive, persistent and consistent approach is of paramount importance.

Consciousness about the power of collective activity is still very low amongst NHS workers and many will not yet have been involved in a collective dispute with NHS bosses. Workers are still deceived and told that consultations, restructuring and outsourcing being imposed on them will improve their conditions and services for patients when the exact opposite occurs each and every time.

It is important to keep engaging with these workers, to show patience and to never write anyone off. We have all come across cynical people who think of a thousand reasons why trade unions can’t do things, but the task in this new period is getting NHS workers to ask themselves what they can do to help to build up their trade union in their workplace. Why? Because it’s in their own interests to do so.

NHS trade unionists, particularly nurses, are putting pressure on their own trade unions and this is starting to have an impact.

The RCN is now openly planning and organising an industrial strategy. Even five years ago the idea of the RCN having a strike fund and gearing up for industrial action in the NHS would have been unthinkable.

Now the prospect of health trade unions coming together to unite and organise for militant collective action to protect the NHS is on the cards for the first time.

NHS staff will choose to join unions that have committed reps in the workplace who are capable of leading a challenge to bad management practices via collective action. NHS trade union campaigns will not be limited to pay alone and the potential for victories to be won by organised members in local NHS trusts and hospitals is huge.

The old ways of partnership working at any cost just won’t achieve anything for trade union members in the coming period and unions that don’t adapt to the new pandemic mood will lose members.

NHS staff are facing yet another significant influx of Covid-19 patients and they are suffering the impact of having their pay anniversary delayed as inflation is rising.

Some activists may be disappointed that the turnout was lower than expected for the NHS birthday, but the very best of them will know that now is not the time to become disheartened or to throw the towel in.

They will recognise that firm foundations are finally being laid to build a movement that is genuinely capable of defending our NHS. The battle to protect NHS staff and the founding principles of the NHS is one that can unite NHS staff, patients and the public.

Organising inside the NHS can throw up challenges but things are changing fast and determined, committed NHS trade union organisers have a big chance to play leading roles in a movement that makes history and that protects the NHS for generations to come.

Helen O’Connor is Southern Region organiser for GMB.

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