Fight on for fair pay: reject the offers in NHS and local government

✭ VOICE EXTRA

Pay is important, but these battles are about much more. It's about the quality of public services available and the well-being of the working-class majority

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser 

· Workers in both the NHS and local authorities are balloting on pay offers from the Scottish Government and COSLA, the local government employers. SSP members in the unions are joining with others in the call to reject both deals and fight on for fair pay.

The hundreds of thousands in these two public services have been through the living hell of 2020, thrown into the jaws of death, risking their lives, working 12-15 hour shifts that are causing burnout—and are now being rewarded for their efforts by derisory pay offers from the same government bodies that were quick enough to applaud them.

Clapping doesn’t pay the bills. We need united action by all the unions to convert applause into pay rises, to at least part-compensate for over a decade of pay cuts.

Even before the pandemic, working-class people suffered a lost decade of austerity, issued by the Westminster Tories, passed on by the Scottish SNP government, implemented by local authority and NHS board bosses.

Underlying their current refusal to cough up fair pay, the employers and government are trying to spread the message ‘you’re lucky to have a job’.

Apart from being a gross insult to people who have put their lives on the line to make society function, this philosophy is economically illiterate.

About more than pay
Pay is important, but these battles are about much more. It’s about the quality of public services available and the well-being of the working-class majority.

For example, the Scottish Government and NHS chiefs dreaded our hospitals being over-run by pandemic patients a year ago, in large part because of decades of cuts which meant they weren’t equipped to cope, were savagely understaffed, and had seen 6,000 hospital beds in Scotland slashed during 11 years of SNP government.

The result? Elderly people were turfed out of hospital wards untested, or even tested Covid-positive, adding to the cruel carnage and lonely deaths in the profit-driven, privately-run care homes.

Decent pay helps attract and retain skilled staff. Decent staffing levels would help remove reliance on 12-15 hour shifts that drain the life out of hospital workers, with burnout and mental distress already reaching epidemic levels.

Make no mistake, huge swathes of council and NHS workers are stuck on poverty pay levels. The official average Scottish wage is over £31,000 but well over half of local authority workers earn less than £25,000.

Many, many NHS staff are on £18-20,000 and newly qualified Band 5 nurses are on £25,100. The fight for 15 per cent for all NHS staff is entirely justified to part-compensate for the 20 per cent real-terms pay cuts over the last 11 years. And it could easily be afforded if the political will was there.

A study by London Economics calculates that 81 per cent of the cost of a 10 per cent pay increase would be recovered through taxes, National Insurance contributions, and savings from reduced use of agency/bank staff.

And when it comes to renewing or expanding Trident weapons of mass destruction money is no object.

Workers’ united action wins concessions
United workers’ action can win concessions, even from the most hard-nosed governments and employers.

In the case of the NHS, the Scottish Government had promised a settlement by Christmas 2020 but had persistently refused to even meet with the trade unions to negotiate, right up until a few weeks ago.

The rank-and-file healthcare workers who established the NHS Workers for Fair Pay campaign in Scotland have courageously and ferociously fought for 15 per cent for nearly a year—unfortunately with little or no involvement or assistance by any of the trade union leaderships.

It’s their tenacious campaigning, alongside demands by the unions for talks, which forced the Scottish Government into belatedly dropping their previous declaration that there would be no settlement until the summer of 2021.

In a sharp pre-election U-turn, literally on the eve of the election campaign commencing, they met the unions and made an offer headlined as 4 per cent. You don’t have to be a mathematician to recognise that 4 per cent is better than Boris Johnson’s 1 per cent deal!

But only a Scottish Government totally lacking any genuine ambition to improve the lot of the working class would be satisfied at being ‘better than Boris’.

Unions need fighting leaders
The response to this offer by the official union leaderships has varied. Largely under the pressure of their own shop stewards, the GMB and even the RCN are both recommending rejection.

Unite is making no recommendation on how to vote, with incredible and feeble explanation that “each member’s wages varies”; as if that was something new in a trade union.

Worse still, Unison’s Health Committee are recommending their members vote to accept the 4 per cent, with blood-curdling scenarios of an even worse offer after a new government takes office in May, and ‘prolonged, sustained strike action’ being the only other alternative.

Fury has erupted amongst NHS Unison members, with many ripping up their membership and joining other unions.

There is a glaring contradiction between the stance of Unison’s leadership on the NHS offer compared to that in local government, where they are rightly recommending rejection. The two offers are hardly a world apart in their impact on pay.

For most council workers the offer means an £800 increase whilst in the NHS it’s £1,009. For the many workers in both sectors on £20,000, the offers are a 5 per cent increase in health and a 4 per cent rise in local government.

Fight on for fair pay
Defeatist talk that this is the best deal on offer ignores the fact that whilst the pre-election period Is a golden opportunity to hammer the politicians with pressure to correct poverty pay and pay injustice—which union leaders should be leading, instead of meekly accepting the outgoing government’s first offer—other forms of united action are the most powerful weapons for change in the hands of working people.

Large public demonstrations—socially distanced—are one such means of struggle. All trade union leaderships, including the STUC, should build for maximum attendance at the socially-distanced Pay Rally organised by the NHS Workers for Fair Pay campaign on Monday 3rd May at 12.30pm in Glasgow Green.

That would be an opportunity to call out the politicians and demand who’s side they are on, putting them on the spot to pledge vastly improved pay if elected.

And if they still refuse to budge, the ultimate weapon of carefully prepared industrial action across the board, combining council and NHS staff, should be built.

To demand that the incoming Scottish government restores pay, implements equal pay for women, and fights for the funds off the Westminster robbers, to put people, pay and public services before profits.

The Scottish Socialist Party and our members in all the trade unions will continue to combine with fellow-trade unionists to reject these shoddy pay offers and fight on for fair pay, funding of public services, and an end to decades of growing poverty and inequality.

TOGETHER WE CAN WIN!

by Pauline Brady, nurse, GMB Rep and NHS Workers Fair Pay campaign

· Staff have lost 20 per cent of their salary over the last decade, on average £6,000. The 4 per cent offer goes no way towards correcting that, with many staff only getting £1000 was their lost wage back.

Comparing this to the rising cost of living, we have fallen 15 per cent below inflation and the £13-a-week this offer equates to doesn’t even cover the increase we are seeing this year alone in energy bills, rent rates and increased food prices.

All the unions were in talks with the Scottish Government and at no point was it established that 4 per cent is the first and final offer. And it falls far short of any union’s demands, which is why the GMB and RCN are recommending reject because they know we deserve more.

‘We had to fight for this first offer’
We have fought for nearly a year to get a first offer. To reject it would not automatically mean a lengthy strike, that is not how the process works.

Rejecting the offer means we give the new government an opportunity to look at the evidence and re-evaluate to make a more reasonable offer.

If we end up down the line considering industrial action that again does not mean a sustained strike. Industrial action comes in many forms, like working to rule, no extra shifts for a period of time.

As nurses we work on the basis of evidence. There is no evidence to suggest we would need a sustained strike as stated by Unison. The government couldn’t afford to allow us to be out on a sustained strike. We have shown we are essential to keeping this country going.

We are losing staff constantly and have been for years because of how poorly paid we are for the gruelling work we do. There has been a staffing crisis for years, but the past year have seen this at its worst and there’s worse to come.

Correcting the pay of NHS staff is about ensuring we retain enough staff to ensure patient safety. Without the staff we cannot protect our patients effectively and this will ultimately lead to many not receiving the care and treatment they need.

To win this fight for pay correction we need to come together as a united front of workers. Stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow comrades in local authority, our teachers, workers all over Scotland. Together we can win.

STOPPING THE DIVIDE-AND-RULE TACTICS

“I’m all for the nurses. They deserve all we can get.”
— Andrea, a nursing assistant

· The Scottish Government’s pre-election 4 per cent offer is consciously divisive; designed to seduce lower paid NHS staff to accept it, out of desperation after a decade of savage pay cuts, thereby leaving the marginally higher-paid nurses in a minority, obliged to put up with the offer.

But as this interview with Andrea, a nursing assistant, demonstrates, the best of the lower-paid NHS workers will not fall for this age-old divide-and-conquer tactic. Richie Venton spoke to Andrea, a nursing assistant:

“I’m a nursing assistant in a mental health Ward, and a member of Unison for the last 10 years. Before that, I was a part-time barber earning £10 an hour. Now I’m on the top increment of Band 2, earning £10.53, ten years later!

To reach this position I had to do all sorts of special training, to stop patients hurting themselves or others. There was a lot of manual handling training. It was really hard work, agony.

I love the job, enjoy the work. I love to see people get a life. But the pay we’re on is ridiculous.

I’m lucky that my husband is a nurse. He works nights and I do dayshifts, to manage childcare. But even then, with two wages coming in, I still have to do two or three bank shifts a month. It’s just ridiculous to have to work virtually every day to meet family bills.

The 4 per cent offer is an absolute joke, a complete slap in the face. I know it’s better than the 1 per cent in England, but still.

I’m so proud of my husband training as a nurse, which was an amazing achievement. He went to University and got a degree.

I’m not dissing teachers for one minute; they deserve everything they get. But my cousin has just qualified as a teacher and will be way ahead of my husband’s wages already.

Nursing assistant’s wages suck, but the nurses have got degrees, and are in charge of medication, in charge of people’s lives. If I worked nightshifts and extra shifts, as a nursing assistant, I could earn more than a Band 5 nurse.

I’ve been a Unison member for 10 years. I’ve never really had to use the union so I cannot comment on the service they provide.

But on the pay issue, when they emailed us about wanting a £2,000 flat rate increase, I emailed them asking can we not all get together and demand up to 15 per cent. I never even got a reply.

Last night’s Unison live pay rally was the last straw. Willie Duffy [Scottish Unison head of health] was very childish and very patronising. He said, ‘I went to school so I can count up to 15’. Well, I’m really glad for him!

They didn’t seem to be listening to members. It was just ‘this is what you’re getting’, even though it’s nothing compared to the £2,000 claim. He said the NHS Workers Fair Pay campaign is nothing, even though this group is organised all over Scotland, England and Wales.

Why can’t the union see that? They may be nothing in his eyes but at least they’re willing to stand up and have tried. The Unison online rally sickened me. I cancelled my Unison membership after 10 years and joined another union.

My message to everyone is reject the offer. You cannae take the first offer. What else may they give us? The union is supposed to work for us. If it does come down to it, and we have to strike then I’ll do it.

We may not get the full 15 per cent, but we may get better than 4 per cent and we deserve better. The nurses are amazing. It’s hard work in the mental health wards but when I was a bank worker in the general wards, I saw the nurses in action.

Because of staff shortages they just get on with it. They can’t stop for a drink, they’re dehydrated, they can’t take off their PPE.

They deserve more and we should definitely reject this offer. If I get a bit extra that would be wonderful, but I’m all for the nurses. They deserve all we can get.”

REJECT THE COSLA OFFER

by Mark Sands, Unison steward in Glasgow City Council

· Local government members are being advised by Unison’s Scottish Local Government Committee to reject COSLA’s offer in an online ballot, and to indicate their willingness to take industrial action in pursuit of the full claim.

Unison’s claim included a flat rate increase of £2,000 or 6 per cent, whichever is greater, with an underpinning £10.50 per hour minimum.

COSLA has offered a lump sum of £800, giving a minimum rate of £9.75 for all earning up to £25,000; a 2 per cent uplift for those earning £25,000-£40,000, and a 1 per cent uplift for those earning up to £80,000, with a cap of £800.

This falls far short of the flat rate and percentage increases in the claim. It does little to address the low pay endemic following a decade of austerity.

In Glasgow, home carers, cleaning staff, child development officers have continued to provide essential public services during the pandemic, despite ongoing pay inequality and discrimination.

It is time to show these workers and others across Scotland that they all deserve better—including refuse collectors, leisure and culture staff (redeployed to test and protect), environmental health officers (involved in setting up temporary mortuaries), classroom assistants and janitors (looking after kids of keyworkers from the NHS and local authorities).

Unison Health, which has 60,000 members, demanded at least £2,000 for all NHS staff. The Scottish Government has offered Bands 1-4 a flat increase of £1,009, and Bands 5-7 a 4 per cent increase.

A Band 1 NHS employee would move from £18,478 to £19,487. A Band 5 qualified nurse on point 1 of the 3-point scale would move from £25,100 to £26,104, an uplift of 4 per cent.

A Unison online pay rally had members incensed with speakers including Willie Duffy (head of health in Unison Scotland) who recommended they accept the offer. This is after Unison argued their demand for £2,000 is a moderate and reasonable claim.

NHS staff, including nurses, regularly work overtime due to staff shortages and the need to pay their bills.

The GMB and even the moderate RCN have recommended their members reject the offer. Many Unison members have left to join the GMB to allow them to reject the offer and join the campaign for 15 per cent.

The Scottish Government and COSLA have the opportunity to show how much they value the vital role our public service workers in the NHS and local government play, by giving them the pay rise they deserve and reverse the pay cuts due to austerity and inflation.

Thousands of key workers died looking after us during the pandemic. Budget cuts to essential public services made the effects of the pandemic worse.

Lack of access to PPE is a prime example as workers continued to feel undervalued and underpaid as they put their health at risk, caring for the weak and vulnerable in hospitals, residential care homes and in the community.

The campaign for fair pay must continue, with activists uniting and highlighting the deepening resentment of a low-paid workforce in the NHS and Local Government fed up with staff shortages and overwork.

This will send a clear message to the Westminster and Scottish governments that enough is enough and embolden workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to unite and fight.

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