Health workers in UK intensify their fight for fair wages and dignity

Underpaid and overworked, workers of the UK’s National Health Service are demanding a wage hike on par with inflation. Both nurses and ambulance workers went on strike in recent days

December 22, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
From the health workers’ march in London (Image credits: Guy Smallman via NHS Workers Say No)

Health workers in the UK are intensifying their agitation, demanding a wage hike at par with soaring inflation. On Tuesday, December 20, nurses affiliated with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) went on strike in NHS hospitals across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. 

Nurses are protesting the Tory government’s refusal to further discuss the demands of the nursing community for increased wages and to mitigate the ongoing and acute cost of living crisis. On Thursday, December 15, over 100,000 nurses went on strike, demanding the same. 

On Wednesday, December 21, ambulance drivers in England and Wales affiliated with unions Unite and GMB also went on strike, demanding wage hikes and more staff. The union, Unite, has pointed out that “ambulance staff have seen their wages collapse in value this year, down by £2,400 [2901.36 USD], with NHS pay having fallen by £6,000 [7253.40 USD] since 2010.” In certain cases, the military was deployed to take care of ambulance services affected by the strike.

A vicious misinformation campaign to malign the health workers’ strike is also taking place in the UK, with the support of mainstream media, which unions and their representatives are pushing back against.

On December 20, NHS staff and campaign groups including ‘NHS Workers Say No’ and  ‘NHS Staff Voices’ (the latter affiliated with the Keep Our NHS Public campaign) marched in London from University College London Hospital to Downing Street, in solidarity with protesting NHS staff including nurses and ambulance drivers. Junior doctors affiliated with the British Medical Association are also gearing up for ballots to decide on the course of action regarding demanding pay hikes. 

For the past several years, especially under the rule of the Conservative Party, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has seen steady underfunding and bids for privatization. The health service was stretched beyond its limit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grossly underpaid NHS workers are now finding it difficult to make ends meet during the ongoing cost of living crisis.

The Tory government in the UK, currently headed by Rishi Sunak, has refused to accept NHS workers’ demands for a hike in wages at par with inflation, which is hovering around 10%. Health workers and unions have rejected the meager 4% rise in wages offered by the government. The nursing union RCN has called for a “5% pay raise over inflation to make up for a twelve-year drop in their real pay.”

On December 20, RCN General Secretary & Chief Executive Pat Cullen warned the UK government that “unless the government [opened] formal pay negotiations within 48 hours” it would “face another wave of strike action.”

“The Prime Minister should ask himself what is motivating nursing staff to stand outside their hospitals for a second day so close to Christmas. They’re prepared to sacrifice a day’s pay to have their concerns heard. Their determination stems as much from worries over patient safety and the future of the NHS than personal hardship,” Cullen added.

While addressing the striking ambulance workers in Coventry on December 21, Sharon Graham, General Secretary of the Unite the Union, declared, “the UK government has had months to intervene and end this dispute, they chose not to. These strikers are actually trying to save the service.”

On December 21, while addressing the House of Commons, MP Jeremy Corbyn said that “the army should not be used as a battering ram from a government that is refusing to meet workers’ representatives, refusing to negotiate, and refusing to invest in our NHS.”

The Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and Young Communist League (YCL–Britain) have expressed support and solidarity to the NHS workers and called on workers in other professions to unite in support of the health workers as well.