Nurses, ambulance workers and other NHS staff have shown their determination to fight. They should reject the NHS pay deal (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Union leaders are trying to bring the NHS pay revolt to an end by recommending a poor deal with the government. Health secretary Steve Barclay has offered an additional 6 percent as a one-off payment for the pay year ending in April—in addition to the 4 percent already imposed. But he is holding out a rise of just 5 percent for the next.

The fact Barclay was forced to make any offer on this year’s pay is a sign of just how hard the strikes by nurses and ambulance workers have hit the Tories. He has spent months telling workers that the issue of pay was “closed”.

Unions were at the point of escalating the hugely effective and popular strike when the government called them in for “serious talks”. The feeling that the Tories are on the ropes leads many activists to think the union should hold out for far more.

Unison union leaders narrowly pushed through a motion to endorse the offer at a meeting of the health service group executive on Thursday. Other unions, including the nurses’ RCN and the ambulance workers’ GMB, are following them.

A grouping of the left on the Unison health executive released a statement calling on members to reject the offer. It says that though the deal is a “big improvement” on the 4 percent pay rise imposed on health workers in 2022-23, it is poor overall—especially on next year’s pay.

“We would have got nothing extra this year if it had not been for amazing health workers who voted for strikes by 88 percent and more across many unions. We all owe thanks to those who courageously and defiantly stood on cold picket lines. It shows strikes can win rises,” it reads.

The statement then points out the problems with the proposed deal. “For 2023-24 the offer is really bad. It’s 5 percent across the board—except for workers on band 2 who will get 10.4 percent,” it says.

“A 5 percent across the board rise amounts to us all getting 1 percent less in our pay packets that we did in 2022-23. It’s a pay cut of 1 percent for the second year.

“How will two more years of pay cuts stop health workers leaving the NHS? How will it enable us to fill the 135,000 unfilled vacancies we have now? How will it improve patient care or staff well-being as we work harder and harder?”

The signatories say that health workers can “do better”. “We think we should reject this deal,” they say. “However poor we are, don’t be bribed for the first year into accepting an actual pay cut in the second. It just delays the debts.”

The Unison health executive vote on whether to recommend the offer was close. This was despite representatives from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—which have their own separate pay arrangements—being allowed to vote on a deal that only affects England.

If the union had barred them from voting, the margin in favour of the offer would have been wafer thin. That closeness of the vote in Unison is likely a reflection of a wider feeling among health workers that strikes have power to win far more.

Health union activists must now try to mobilise those people to reject the deal. They can point to the on-going fight by junior doctors—and the huge potential of a strike that would involve all health unions taking action on the same day.

Union leaders shied away from using their strongest tactic, fearing that it might drive away public support. But there’s little evidence for that. Instead, most people strongly support all pay strikes because everyone is in the same battle to pay their bills.

Raising the prospect of a bigger fight is the way to turn the forthcoming union ballots into a resumption of the strikes.

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