CSP union physiotherapists on the picket line outside St Thomas’ hospital in central London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Physiotherapists at over 30 trusts in England joined the NHS pay revolt on Thursday by walking out to join picket lines.

The 24-hour walkout was the first time Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) members struck over pay in England in the union’s history. It involved both physios and support workers.

The Tory government has offered almost all NHS workers a rise that averages at just 4 percent. And so far, it refuses to even discuss this year’s settlement. But poor pay has been further decimated by years of below-inflation deals. That now means it is almost impossible to recruit new staff or retain those with high skills and experience. That has led to a deep pool of anger and frustration which now drives strikes by nurses, midwives, ambulance workers and others.

From outside the Medway hospital in Kent, physio Darren Freeman, said, “The current pay award does not cover the cost of living increases which means members are struggling. We already have problems recruiting and retaining staff because of the low pay, which limits safe staff numbers and impacts on patient care.”

At the Royal Brompton hospital in west London, a CSP member told Socialist Worker, “It’s good to be out on strike. We have seen others come out and not been able to join them. I have only recently started this job as a new physio and I love the difference we can make to patients’ lives. But there are big staff shortages and that means people miss out. The whole NHS is in crisis. Now all of us—nurses, ambulance workers, junior doctors, and others—need to be supporting each other.”

The strike hit hard because physios play a vital role in the health service, particularly in helping discharge in-patients. The CSP said it expected community physiotherapy, rehab work and discharge planning to be heavily disrupted. But, as with other health workers’ strikes, the union is maintaining emergency cover for those needing urgent care, such as patients with severe respiratory problems.

Socialist Worker supporters around England say picket lines are young and lively, with many physios having made their own banners. Slogans on these include, “My patients cough up more than the Tories,” “This unfit government needs physio,” and, “Living on low wages is a stretch.” Others read, “No bones about it – fair pay now,” and, “You’re breaking our backs.”

At UCH hospital in central London, dozens of physios picketed on the steps that last week saw 2,000 nurses and their supporters gather to protest against the Tories. Their main banner on Thursday read, “Without physios the NHS hasn’t got a leg to stand on!”

There was a similarly lively picket in Coventry where one banner read, “Multi-specialty but understaffing’s the reality.” At Great Ormond Street hospital, in central London, Alex told Socialist Worker, “We are not a big section of the workforce. But every group that strikes keeps the issue in the public view and adds to the pressure on the government.

“I don’t have a lot of faith that the government is suddenly going to change its mind and come up with a 10 percent offer or whatever. I think it would take a lot more for them to do that. If there are no proper talks, then there are more physios’ strikes next month, and it would be good in the future to coordinate with other NHS workers. I’d love to be here with nurses and ambulance workers.”

Physiotherapists picket in Coventry (Picture: Richard Milner)

The overwhelming wish of most health strikers is to come together for a big, united day of action. Some union leaders are heading in that direction. Nurses in the RCN union will combine with ambulance workers in the GMB and Unite unions on Monday 6 February for a major shutdown.

Another group taking its first strikes—midwives in Wales—are set to join nurses on the second day of their 48-hours strike on Tuesday 7 February. The combined effect of so many health workers on strike will be huge, and ramp up the pressure on the Tories.

But it could have been more intense still. The leaders of the Unison union, which represents many ambulance workers, decided against joining either day and will instead follow its own plan. Here competition between unions is hampering the action needed to win.

The same lack of class politics meant that Unison and RCN leaders turned down the chance to be part of the massive 1 February strikes next Wednesday. They will see half a million workers stop work.

The logic of the health service battle pushes towards unity, both between other NHS staff, and with other workers in struggle. All health workers should put pressure on their unions to come together and show solidarity with everyone fighting back against this rotten government. The first steps towards that would be ensuring that NHS workers are well represented on the dozens of local protests set to accompany strikes on 1 February.

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