Health Strikes in the North: Defending Workers’ Pay and the NHS

With widespread discontent and anger over pay, safe staffing and mileage reimbursement, health service unions in Northern Ireland – NIPSA and UNISON -commenced industrial action on 5 December 2022. Action initially commenced with ongoing work to rule and then increased to strike action on 12 December and 26 January, with further strike action and escalating action short of strike in February and March.

It was with great reluctance that health service workers took the decision to strike and engage in action short of strike. However they did so with the determination that they were fighting not only for a fair, decent inflation busting pay rise but in defence of the fundamentals of the NHS.

Chronic staff shortages, excessive workloads, extreme pressure, unsafe working conditions, stress and burnout are all issues that face workers across all areas in the health service; conditions that are unsustainable.

The question of pay and staff shortages are intrinsically linked; investing in health service workers pay is investing in the country’s essential workers. The derisory pay award for this year is, in real terms, a pay cut for NHS workers. In fact, it’s an insult to staff who are treating it with the disdain that it deserves.

In response to this, workers are leaving the health service for better paid jobs elsewhere and the NHS are struggling to attract and retain in sufficient numbers resulting in increasingly unsafe staffing levels and despite the best attempts patient safety is compromised.

Trapped in a service in crisis, underfunded and haemorrhaging staff. Health Service workers have taken a stand!

The battle in the Health Service isn’t just a response to low pay and inflation- it’s the product of years of austerity and Tory reforms which have pushed the NHS and the workers who have kept it afloat to the brink. Implicit in a permanent crusade for cost containment is the suppression of pay and staffing costs. Pay controls have been the policy instrument of choice that our elected politicians have presided over.

Furthermore, despite the mantra of the right wing media it is also the Tory Government and the Department of Health, who are responsible for shambolic workforce planning and for failing to invest in safe staffing and are consequently bear the ultimate responsibility for the disputes in the health service.

Industrial action around mileage is a core aspect of NIPSA’s dispute. This is a critical issue for members due to the disparity for Northern Ireland health workers on AFC mileage rates. No account was ever taken of the fact that staff in NI work in integrated health and social care settings, and are, as a consequence, required as part of their job to undertake very significant mileage. In essence, it is costing these staff to do their job!

Health staff are in a battle for pay justice, safe staffing and mileage reimbursement but also a broader battle- a fightback against the idea that we cannot justify investment in our NHS and its workforce.

Support for the health strikes from the public and service users has been overwhelming and is a testament to the uncompromising position of health service workers.

Going forward action will continue and escalate until there a change in the trajectory of pay safe staffing and mileage for NHS staff. A strong, bold, militant campaigning approach is needed across all trade unions, communities and all those whose aim is to defend the principle of high quality universal healthcare and the workers who provide it for us.

The trade union movement is a force to be reckoned with if they stand strong united against attacks on workers, a coordinated general strike would send a loud defiant message to the government that we will accept nothing less than our worth.