RCN picket line, UCLH RCN picket line, UCLH. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

As RCN members return to the picket lines, Cici Washburn speaks to a striking nurse about the crisis in the NHS and the impact of the strikes

How has the experience of striking affected you and your colleagues?

It has been empowering to find out we can affect things even to a certain extent. It’s been a wake-up call. This government cannot ignore us.

We have exposed how the government has no commitment to giving us a pay increase or to helping to save the NHS. They’ve had to call an emergency Downing Street summit – it’s window dressing, of course, but I don’t think it would have happened without us kickstarting with strikes last year.

The experience of being on the picket lines is transforming people.  I’ve seen so many colleagues who previously didn’t feel they had a voice at all now completely changed and have a sense of the power we hold. The lowest paid, the NHS cleaners, the BAME colleagues I’ve spoken to, usually those lacking in confidence, all feel galvanised. They have a sense of their power now. People feel strengthened through collective action and feel they have a voice and are being heard.

The workers motivated by the strikes need to keep going. These are the people we are fighting for. I met a cleaner, we were talking about nurses having come from the Caribbean to work in the NHS, its making these alliances with ordinary people from across the board which will be change-making.

It’s an old socialist adage that you learn more in a day’s striking than in years of college education. It’s really true.

The Tories are failing to dodge the NHS crisis. Our side needs to keep generalising. How can strikers help with this, particularly with anti-privatisation arguments?

It is crystal clear that the Tories’ words are empty. They are fully intent on betraying the NHS, they promise nothing specific, nothing to address the huge issues affecting the NHS and causing the crisis we are in, and nothing to address defunding or privatisation. The public are victims of this: we have seen this in December and early January with horrific stories of how people are not getting the care they need. Protests and rallies will be a crucial first step in bringing together striking staff and all of us as people to fight for the NHS. We need to do this, there is no other way.

Some public-sector workers are struggling with the 50% threshold. What would you say to them?

It’s a battle, there’s no disguising that. A lot of union leaders have considered it insurmountable for years. What I would say is that once you’ve crossed it, your members will be fighting fit. The best thing we can do with that Tory hurdle is to turn it on its head and use it as a benchmark for militancy. Don’t forget that many of the unions that routinely cross it now, didn’t in the first instance.

The upcoming anti-strike legislation is a battle that we need to be fighting, alongside all the other issues. We need to make sure we are fighting the government on this and we need to fight it all concurrently. It is critical that we don’t ignore this. The Tories are mobilising to restrict our right to strike, we need to mobilise across the board and fight them.

We deserve pay justice as citizens and pay is a huge factor. But so much needs to be done to fight for the NHS and its staff, there is a huge job ahead to sort this out.

The movement is crying out for a series of national protests and rallies, and I know there are some in the pipeline.

Do you have a message for Counterfire readers?

Struggle is never incremental. It’s always two steps forward, one step back. We can’t let setbacks defeat us. Every worker today knows what a union is, even if they’re not a member yet. That wasn’t the case a few years ago. The most militant and energised sections of the movement need to unite with students and everyone who uses the services we provide.

We cannot let the people think the Labour Party is our class’s only voice. Keep fighting, stick together and make sure 2023 is a year for the history books.

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