Union leader warns of biggest NHS strikes since 1980s

The boss of Britain’s largest union has warned that the biggest nationwide strike by NHS workers since the early 1980s could hit the healthcare system this winter if ministers ignore calls to adjust wages to inflation.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said the union will elect 406,000 members across the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from October 27, while a vote is already underway for Scottish members.

Other unions representing NHS workers, including the Royal College of Nursing, have their own voices and could join Unison in coordinated action involving 750,000 workers.

Industrial action would result in surgeries and appointments being cancelled, putting an additional strain on health services as a record 7 million people are now awaiting hospital treatment.

McAnea said the pressure had become so acute that many parts of the health system were already operating at staffing levels close to the minimum that would be in place during a strike to keep patients safe.

“We bleed staff. The NHS cannot retain or hire its staff,” McAnea said, adding that ambulance workers in particular felt the service was already “as bad as it was through the strike”.

The ballot comes as Britain enters an “autumn of discontent” with strikes disrupting rail networks, major ports, Royal Mail postal services and 999 emergency call handlers, joining continued action by BT Group workers.

Last week, transport union RMT confirmed it would urge members to support industrial action on the railways for another six months. Teachers’ and doctors’ unions are also preparing for elections and, echoing the past, union members at the National Coal Mining Museum have voted to go on strike.

McAnea said action on this scale had not taken place since the bitter disputes with Margaret Thatcher’s government over nurses’ pay in the early 1980s.

Christina McAnea

Christina McAnea: “We bleed staff. The NHS cannot retain or recruit its staff” © Charlie Bibby/FT

The Government’s £1,400 lump sum pay rise earlier this year for all staff covered under the NHS Agenda for Change contract is relatively generous for the lowest paid staff, although wages are still falling in real terms.

But many professionals with modest salaries — including nurses, paramedics and physical therapists — would see a pay rise of around 4 percent under the current offering. By comparison, consumer prices rose 9.9 percent through August, while average wages, including bonuses, rose 6.8 percent in the private sector.

Many people with salaries of around £30,000 have been exhausted after being routinely asked to work extra shifts and weekends and “really feeling the pinch”, McAnea said, with new concerns about rising mortgage rates prompting some to chime in looking for a second job.

New research commissioned by the NHS Confederation showed that the NHS is a major contributor to the UK economy and that every £1 to £4 invested in healthcare generates economic growth.

Ahead of the annual meeting of Britain’s trade union movement at the TUC Congress in Brighton on Tuesday, McAnea dismissed comments from Prime Minister Liz Truss telling striking rail workers they should “get back to work” so the country can move forward.

Ministers have not yet responded to her request for a meeting, she said, contrasting the Westminster government’s approach with those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where “we are seen as part of the country’s social fabric”.

Unions would find ways to operate even as the government moves ahead with plans to raise the thresholds for passing strike elections, McAnea suggested, but warned that a separate proposal — to require unions to reject all offers from employers to judge its members – is impractical.

https://www.ft.com/content/14d40961-807f-4e31-bebd-827b379df361 Union leader warns of biggest NHS strikes since 1980s

Adam Bradshaw

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