There was a lively atmosphere on NHS picket lines on Tyneside yesterday morning as health unions stopped work for four hours in a dispute over pay.
NHS workers wages have fallen 15 per cent in real terms since the coalition assumed power in 2010. Yet even with the economy recovering the 1% across the board income rise agreed with the independent NHS pay review board was cancelled by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in March. To add insult to injury the government has announced the same no pay increase approach for 2015/16.
It was the latest kick in the teeth for NHS staff that are struggling to keep afloat what was once the nation’s flagship service against a coalition programme of enormous cuts and privatisation in which essential services are handed to private health contractors. In 2012 the Tories health and social care act removed their duty to provide comprehensive healthcare to citizens and a future Tory government will certainly see the NHS lost forever.
The battle lines are thus clear especially as, unlike bankers bonuses and tax cuts to the rich, a pay rise to NHS employees will boost the economy through the additional spending generated.
Picket lines quickly formed on Tyneside just after 7am as staff left work and were joined by colleagues yet to begin their shifts. People were in a good mood, proud of standing up for themselves and a service that many have dedicated their lives to. UNITE NHS members have previously taken strike action alongside their colleagues in the GMB and UNISON over different issues but today was the first time in its 133 years history that the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has taken industrial action. A good many RCM members were in fine voice on the picket line at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Newcastle.
“It’s a clear sign of just how bad things have got in the NHS when the RCM are on strike,” said David Rawlings, the equality and diversity officer for Newcastle Hospitals UNITE branch, “I’ve worked for the NHS at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle since 1979 but under the current government morale has plummeted. We can’t just sit back and allow this vital institution to be destroyed, paying a decent wage is not only fair but aids recruitment and retention of dedicated staff whose joint efforts save people’s lives.”
Pickets were particularly out in force at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead. A Royal Mail delivery van refused to cross. Numerous passing vehicles sounded their horns and in return were drowned out by the strikers’ cheers.
Patients praised NHS workers. “They save people’s lives and deserve to be properly rewarded for doing so,” said Sheila Ross following her breast cancer test.
“I am delighted our efforts in encouraging people to fight back has paid off with good numbers taking action alongside colleagues in other unions, with whom unity is vital. This government is intent on destroying NHS workers pay and the services we provide. As trade unionists we don’t intend allowing that to happen and you can see that the public backs us on this,” said Arlo Lapworth, the branch secretary for UNITE’s Gateshead Hospitals branch.
"We have 600,000 workers in the NHS who have been denied an urgently needed pay rise. Many of these are low paid. I am convinced that Hunt's decision not to pay what was agreed by the pay review body is part of a general attack, The government wants to demoralise workers so as to prevent any resistance to their plans to privatise the NHS," said Lorraine
Taylor from UNISON.