Wednesday, December 21, 2022

UK Labor: Nurses have public support in their strike


In taking on NHS nurses who are trying to get a decent pay rise, the Tories may have bitten off more than they can chew, as public opinion is strongly in support of NHS staff.

It goes without saying that any socialist or trade unionist worth their salt should stand in compete solidarity with all of those workers who are attempting to maintain their living standards. In the face of what is the biggest hit on livelihoods for generations, millions of workers are acting, not to get a pay rise but just to be able to stand still.

The same key workers who were applauded by Tory ministers, for continuing to work during the Covid pandemic, are now being kicked in the teeth by the same people. Despite frantic attempts by the mainstream media and the BBC to demonise strikers, there is widespread public support for the strikes of NHS workers, rail workers, posties, civil servants, junior doctors (above), lecturers and teachers. There is a general understanding – after all, the big majority of people are suffering the same way as rents, food and heating costs soar – that living standards are being squeezed beyond endurance.

While the government, parroted by the media, ask “who will pay” for public sector wage increases, it does nothing about the tens of billions of pounds lost every year through industrial-scale tax-dodging in British territories overseas. There are no BBC journalists quizzing ministers about tax-avoidance – just the relentless harassment of trade union leaders trying to get the best for their members.

‘modernisation’ is another word for cuts in jobs and pay

The greatest ‘con’ of all is to attempt, as the media and government are doing, to link wage rises with so-called reforms and modernization. Both of these terms are code for cuts by other means – cuts in jobs, in conditions of employment and in many cases cuts in actual pay, by removing unsocial hours, weekend and overtime payments. We should refer to these measures in the right terms – they are not reforms, but counter-reforms, it is not modernisation, but ‘Victorianisation’ of workers’ conditions.

How the rabidly right-wing Mail reported on the wave of strikes

The only exception to this general pattern has been the treatment that the media has given to the Royal College of Nursing, whose members were on strike across Britain for the first time in their entire history. They have to soft-pedal because there is an overwhelming public awareness that NHS nurses are overworked, understaffed and underpaid.

It is a monstrous irony that when unions have approached NHS managers to negotiate what is a ‘reasonable’ level of emergency cover during the strike, in most instances the agreed cover is better than the ‘norm’ in the NHS. This is an appalling situation, but it rarely features on the flagship TV news programmes.

That there is huge public sympathy and support for the nurses can be seen in the anecdotal evidence of support given to picket lines. There has been in many instances a cacophony of car horns as those driving past expressed their support. Nurses were often overwhelmed by gestures of support from passers-by and from patients going in and out of the hospitals.

Nurses haven’t been given the Mick Lynch treatment

There is so much public support that the media have been obliged to treat nurses with kid gloves: they haven’t been given the Mick Lynch treatment. Even the Daily Express, owned by a tax-dodging billionaire and a regular mouthpiece of the rich, was forced to pay some lip service to the plight of nurses. Not rail workers, nor teachers or lecturers, nor civil servants, nor posties, nor anyone else just trying to keep their heads above water, nor for that matter other NHS staff…only the nurses.

We should make no distinction between nurses fighting to maintain their livelihoods and other workers doing the same, but it may well be that in taking on the nurses the Tories are biting off more than they can chew. Even Tory MPs and former ministers are urging the government to come to a deal with the RCN, in the face of massive public support.

The Tories are completely out of synch with public opinion on this issue and unfortunately, the same is true of the Labour leadership. If they stood in defence of the NHS and fought a campaign on it, on this issue alone Labour could storm to an election victory. Labour could point to the river of money flowing out of the NHS in the form of PFI payments and privatisation contracts. They could point to the huge waste of government finance in the form of tax-dodging. They could argue for a fully-public health service as it was envisaged by the founders in 1948.

Unfortunately, Keir Starmer and Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, are doing the opposite. True to their Tory-lite convictions, they have refused outright to support the nurses. They might argue about how much nurses’ living standards should be cut, but they are fully in agreement with the principle that they are cut. It is a Labour leadership offering only slightly less pain than the Tories.

Wes Streeting is making a serious political misjudgement

By giving an interview to the Tory-supporting Sunday Telegraph, Wes Streeting has effectively jumped on the same anti-trade union bandwagon as the most right-wing Tory MP. But he is making a serious political mistake if he thinks his Tory-lite posturing about ‘taking on’ the NHS unions is going to attract votes. There is not an ounce of radicalism, not a shred of anger or indignation in the comments of the Labour leadership on nurses’ pay. They are far behind public opinion in this, as they are on many other issues.

Even the Tory Daily Express was obliged to pay some lip-service to the nurses’ case

The current wave of strikes will have important implications for the union membership and their leaders. There are some union leaders who are doing their utmost to win their disputes. Unions like the RMT and the CWU can do little else because, were they to cave in, their members would suffer huge cuts in jobs and conditions. But there are also, unfortunately, some others who talk the talk but do little else.

For most of the strikes already in progress, or are about to begin, the government is either the direct paymaster or it is pushing behind the scenes, as with Royal Mail or the train operators, to undermine the wages and conditions of workers. In that sense, all of these strikes are political.

It may be the case that the focus of the struggle is the workplace, but it would be a huge public boost to the morale of workers, and it would help drive public opinion, if the Labour leadership were to come out in favour of the strikers. The fact that the Labour leadership refuses to do this is an issue of profound importance to those larger Labour-affiliated unions, like the GMB, UNISON and Unite, that are involved in these disputes. The leaders of these unions cannot go on ignoring the fact that they are paying fees to a party whose leadership is an obstacle to them winning their dispute.

Why do trade unions back a Labour leader who works against them?

When the dust is settled, the membership of these unions will be justified in posing important questions to their leaders – why are we supporting Labour leaders who work against us? In the case of UNISON, members will ask why were we Starmer’s biggest trade union backer in his election campaign, when he does not support us? Unite members will be asking, if we are affiliated to the Labour Party, why do we stand aside from the fight that is going on in the Party? Why do we not actively organise against the Tory-lite infiltrators who have captured the parliamentary leadership?

One thing that always happens in a big strike wave – and this is especially true where workers are going on strike for the first time in their lives – is that eyes are opened. There is more political awakening in hours on the picket line than there is in years of discussions. Workers on strike begin to understand who their real friends are, and they get to know who is against them.

How a member of the UCU expressed through Twitter his experiences on a picket for the first time in his life

As a result of these strikes, tens of thousands of workers will come to see that this government is the direct political representation of a system based on greed, profit and the personal enrichment of a tiny proportion of the population. Theirs is a system rigged in the interests of the rich and super-rich, where the more important your job is, the least well paid you are.

We will continue to support all the workers fighting to maintain their livelihoods, but we will also continue to raise the political implications for the future. The only long-term guarantee of the maintenance of any decent standards of living is to create a political movement, one that can effect a revolutionary change in society, from one based on the greed of the Few to one based on the needs of the Many.


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