Ambulance strikers on the picket line at Deptford station, south east London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

There was a strong sense of ambulance workers “digging in” for a long fight on Friday’s strike by the Unison union.

In some parts of the country, including London, Unison members at NHS 111 call centres and support staff joined striking ambulance crews for the first time. And, some new workers joined picket lines as Friday was the first time their shifts coincided with action.

From a picket line in east London, one striker told Socialist Worker that the day had gone “really well”. “The morale here is strong and so is the public support,” she said.

But she was quick to add that the union must now start thinking of new tactics because the government shows no sign of moving. “The Tories are hoping they can string this out until April, when the new pay year starts,” she said. 

“That means we have to get serious co-ordination between all the health unions. It’s no good us in Unison being out on one day in one part of the country, the GMB out on another, and Unite on still another.

“All the unions have to co-ordinate to have an impact. And, I think all the health unions, including the nurses and the physios, should be out together as well.”

Pickets in North Yorkshire echoed that. A striker there told Socialist Worker that action there was “going well” with all Unison members on strike. He was particularly pleased that public support on the picket line on the picket line is “still massive”.

“I think we need to build up our action and I think members want us to do more to hit the Tories,” he said. “Obviously, we still have to provide life and limb emergency cover, that’s a legal and moral obligation.

“But we can strike for more days—say, two or three days together. We can strike more often, and we can strike alongside other unions too. 

“Unison are also re-balloting areas of the country where the union didn’t meet the turnout threshold. So that should bring more people into action. This was never just about pay for us, it’s about the future of the NHS – and it’s about our right to strike. Being able to withdraw your labour is a basic human right.”

The Yorkshire striker also explained how the crisis in A&E is being used to expand the private sector. “To reduce handover times at our local hospital, they’ve brought in a private firm to take patients from our ambulances,” he said. 

“Those people are being paid far more than nurses to do jobs that NHS nurses should be doing. The danger is that this kind of practice becomes the norm and the private sector grabs more of the health service.”

Strikers are right to point to the danger of the Tories stringing out the dispute for weeks. But there is also a risk they might try and tempt union leaders to call off action by offering a token concession.

Ambulance strikers in York

That could include a slightly better deal for next year combined with a one-off, non-consolidated sum for 2022-23.

That’s exactly what the Welsh offered, and is similar to the approach of the Scottish government. In both cases it has led the unions to “suspend” action. And in both cases, it means a below-inflation rise in both pay years.

Another year of pitiful pay rises will mean more unfilled vacancies, more people leaving their health service jobs—and therefore, more danger for patients. That’s why strikers must hold out for their original demand for an inflation-matching deal.

The government will not be forced into making such an offer because of public opinion alone. The Tories are already 20 percentage points behind Labour in opinion polls—and most of their MPs are resigned to losing the next election.

What could force them is if the scale of the revolt among workers were so great that they could not govern effectively. That would mean both escalating the strikes—in the way pickets that spoke to Socialist Worker are advocating—and joining with other workers on strike.

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