Not just a strike over pay but a strike over patient care
Socialist Interview with Danny James, a mental health nurse from Swansea, a member of the Royal College of Nursing and the International Socialist League
Is the RCN a historic vote?
It most certainly is. The RCN is the largest nursing union in the world, representing over 460,000 nurses and healthcare assistants, and this is the first national strike called in its 106-year history. It is a measure of the anger and desperation amongst nurses. The RCN has always been considered a very conservative union and was to the right of the TUC on many issues. Given this history, it is even more telling that the RCN is leading the charge regarding strike action in the NHS rather than other NHS unions.
Why are union members and NHS staff so angry?
It is several closely interlocking issues. The issue of pay is central. Since 2010 nurses have had a series of below inflation pay deals, a pay cut in real terms, so severe that if nurse pay had kept track with inflation, a Band 5 nurse would now be £10,000 better off. Pay stagnation has led to staff struggling to pay bills, childcare costs etc. They are being driven out of the profession.
The impacts on patient care are obvious. The number of nurses leaving rose by 70% last year, and it will continue. There are not enough newly qualified nurses to replace them. This has led to a nursing shortage of over 40,000 in England alone. As pay and conditions decline, more and more nurses leave. That increases the pressure on those remaining, resulting in a declining spiral.
Combined with this is the issue of NHS funding. The Tories will tell you that NHS funding has never been higher, and on the face of this is true. However, this fails to consider inflation and a growing and ageing population, especially considering that most older patients have several co-morbidities.
It is vital to get the message out that this is not just a strike over pay, it is a strike over patient care. We want to do our jobs well but are not allowed to. The result is a perfect storm with crumbling wards, outdated equipment, dangerous understaffing, and massive underpayment of professionals. It is a disaster for everyone involved.
Should all NHS unions strike together?
It’s an absolute no-brainer. We work together as a team and we should work together to defend the service. Many nurses are organised within UNISON, UNITE and GMB, but this dispute is far more profound than nurses. It is about all staff, and this often gets lost in the mainstream narrative. The other unions are where our colleagues, such as domestics, porters, caterers, admin, and laundry staff, among countless others, are organised. Without these workers, the NHS is nothing; it would grind to a halt within hours. Any strategy to win must involve a joint and coordinated response from all unions involved in the battle to save the NHS.
Would you agree that coordinated and general strikes are needed as the fight for the NHS is a working class and political battle?
The fight to defend the NHS is, without doubt, a class issue. There isn’t a working-class person in the country who hasn’t benefited from the services provided by the NHS. The NHS is, quite frankly, the most precious possession the UK working class has, and it must be defended at all costs. It welcomes you into the world at birth, ushers you out of life at death, and cares for you and those you love at all points in between.
The best way to defend these services is through coordinated strike action, not only amongst the unions that represent the NHS unions but also on the broader trade union movement through the organisation of a general strike. However, I do not believe that the leadership of the trade unions can be trusted to lead us in such a fight. They have gained their elevated wages and their positions in the House of Lords by guaranteeing social peace for the rich. The anger of the ordinary workers has pushed them into the strike action we are now seeing. Still, it will take real rank and file organisation across our unions and communities to push for the industrial action we need to defend our services. Ultimately this means nothing short a general strike.