The British nurses demand a 19% pay rise. This might sound a lot, but we must not forget that we have had a depression of wages for around a decade now, since the financial crisis in 2008 and during the whole period of Tory rule. And now we have rising inflation that is destroying people’s living standards. We have had a massive exodus of nurses, partly due to Brexit but also because of low pay conditions, and this is still taking place. Inflation, which stands now at around 11%, drives every strike in the UK, and is causing a cost of living crisis. So this is cutting real wages, and people can see through this. The situation in the NHS is extremely bad at the moment, and the nurses are also pushing for an increase in general spending on health – says Gavin Rae, member of the Labour Party and observer of UK politics.
Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.
First of all, how is it possible that this is the first strike of nurses in the history of the NHS? The health services go on strike quite often, the NHS staff has had a lot of grievances…
It’s not the first strike of medical workers in the UK. There is a history of strikes, but they were all minor ones, partial strikes. During the Thatcher era there were strikes, but definitely not on today’s scale. In Northern Ireland, there was also a strike in 2019 accompanied by the junior doctors industrial action.
So there have been a number of actions. One of the reasons why there has never been a general strike of nurses, is that the greatest union, the Royal College of Nurses, for long time did not approve of industrial actions. There was such a provision in their constitution and it was changed only in 1995. Nursing is specific job, people going on strike will affect patients and so forth. The decision to go on strike is not taken lightly.
The fact that now we have the first national strike of the nurses in January, and before we had some of them in December, shows that nurses have been pushed to the limit. They are accompanied by ambulance crews and junior doctors who are now balloting for strike action. The situation is very hard in the NHS and we still do not know what could happen next.
What is this Royal College of Nursing?
They have in their ranks something like 500 thousand nurses. So it’s a big union. In the past it was more of a guild, which refused to take industrial action. However, the dire situation in the NHS has forced even this quite conservative union to take action.
In the medical profession there were many different trade unions, because there are many different jobs. Care staff, infrastructure staff, doctors, nurses etc. There are many other unions representing different health workers
There is, for instance, GMB Union, which also has 500 thousand members.
This one represents many different occupations across the medical services. We also have Unison, which is the main public sector trade union. GMB, I think, mainly represents ambulance crews, administration and care workers, as well as IT staff.
The current wave of strikes started with GMB strike. On the same day, Unison went on strike. Then Royal College of Nurses on the 18-19th of January accompanied by the Unite the Union. Then we have a physiotherapy strike, by the Charter and Society of Physiotherapy at the end of January and at the beginning of February. Which union is coordinating all this wave? Is this task up to the Trade Union Congress?
There is no one body coordinating it. What we have here are different unions, communicating of course with each other, but taking actions separately, sometimes joining their forces. They demand pay rises, and have refused to accept the deal proposed to them as it is below the inflation rate, meaning that their real wages are declining. At the same time, we see the strikes not only in the NHS, we have strikes among rail workers, academic staff, judicial barristers, firefighters, postal workers. Teachers will be joining soon… and other groups, too.
The negotiating power of all of them is rising.
Yes, as in most cases the strikes are not being centrally coordinated. This may change in the future as it would strengthen the unions and strikers. It would take the protest to a new level and place much greater pressure on the government to respond.
This is the biggest strike wave in decades. 1,4 million working days were lost to strikes in December alone, so this is huge! It’s the highest monthly industrial action since July 1989. A massive increase in industrial action in the UK.
Before we go into the demands of NHS workers, I have to ask you about the tactics and the lack of strategy in those industrial actions. When we talk about the miners’ strikes in Thatcher era, those were long, really long actions, with no one day strike approach. That people were rather ready to strike for one year or more. In other words, it wasn’t hit and run strike..
At the moment these are one day strikes, just like you said. This history perhaps shows the strength of the current trade union. It is very difficult for workers to go on indefinite strike when they will lose pay. There is a very large upturn in industrial action and solidarity actions with the workers. However, this is not on the scale of the miners strike you mentioned.
But why not strike for one week? One week of NHS strike, next week rail workers strike…
Your guess is as good as mine. There are a number of factors, including the willingness of workers to take this action, maintaining the support of the population for the strikes and the attitude of the bureaucracy to these strikes.
Support for the strikes is still higher than for the government.
Yes, it is still high, that’s a really positive thing. Particularly for the NHS strike, for the nurses. They were on the frontline during the pandemic. Even though their strike is potentially the most disruptive, 60-70% of people support the nurses’ strike. But general support for the rail workers is around 45-50%. This is perhaps because this strike has already been going on longer and it affects more people and businesses.
I remember that at the beginning, the support for railwaymen reached 70%. The whole propaganda machine is aimed at Mike Lynch and his comrades, so here having 45% of support is still very positive phenomenon. They started this strike wave, so if they fail, everyone else can. That’s why they are the public enemy.
Yeah, but don’t forget that the strikes do affect people. People want to go to hospital, work, school and so forth. The unions want to keep social support for these strikes.
There is a vast number of people who cannot strike, who are suffering under the cost of living crisis and inflation, but they cannot strike because they are on zero hour contracts or are not able to join a union. Often only a minority of workers can actually organise and protest.
As you said, there is a massive propaganda campaign against rail workers. Their unions are very left wing, and they pose a danger to the whole neoliberal agenda. What’s interesting is that there is a very small number of people working in the railway industry. But they have quite a lot of power, because they can just stop trains, stop the movement of goods and people. So their actions have massive effects.
The same people who were fighting against Corbyn, are fighting now against Lynch and the RMT Union. I imagine that discussions among trade unions are about how to keep the support for strikes, how to keep momentum for strikes and how to organise ourselves. There are no mainstream media that they can count on.
So right now what are the demands of the nurses right now?
Nurses demand a 19% pay rise, this might sound a lot, but there are a number of reasons for this. We have had a depression of wages for around a decade now, since the financial crisis in 2008 and during the whole period of Tory rule. And now we have rising inflation that is destroying people’s living standards. We have had a massive exodus of nurses, partly due to Brexit, but also because of low pay conditions, and this is still taking place.
Inflation, which stands now at around 11%, drives every strike in the UK, and is causing a cost of living crisis. So this is cutting real wages, and people can see through this. The situation in the NHS is extremely bad at the moment, and the nurses are also pushing for an increase in general spending on the NHS..
Which has been silently privatised through cutting of the spending by the Tories since the last Labour government.
The UK is now spending well below the OECD average on health. The situation is preposterous. The effect on the NHS is getting worse and worse every day. In the UK we have now 3 beds per 10 thousand people. In comparison, in Poland it is 6 beds per 10 thousand people. Waiting times have soared in recent years and the overall situation in the health system is getting worse and worse. . During the period of Tory government waiting times have tripled and people feel the effects of this ongoing defunding of the NHS. The nurses trade unions are therefore demanding an improvement in their salaries and in the health system as a whole. This is one reason why strikes are so popular at the moment.
And what with the Tory party right now?
The Tories know that their days are numbered and that it is very likely they will lose the next election. They are therefore trying to push through as much of their neoliberal agenda before the next election. Part of this involves running down public services such as the NHS as a prelude to at least partially privatising them. They know that the next Labour government will not reverse most of the policies they implement, because Starmer essentially agrees with their neoliberal policies.
So do you see any communication strategy from the trade unions referring to this, that Tories don’t have any electoral strategy, and they will just destroy the country?
As far as I can tell they don’t refer to the undemocratic rule of the Tory party much. So there is no overall strategy right now, for the labour movement right now, just some glimpses of a possible alternative narrative narration here and there. They talk about privatisation, outsourcing etc.. And those things have resonance in British society.
We will have to see what occurs during the coming weeks and months. THe government is preparing an anti-union law that will restrict some public sector trade unions from striking. Such policies may galvanise the trade union movement into taking more coordinated action. At the moment the Labour Party is under the control of the right, although they are being put under pressure to at least formally support the striking workers.
The economic situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon in the UK, so things are unlikely to calm down any time soon.