Health workers protest in London | Photo: Jamal Elaheebocus Health workers protest in London | Photo: Jamal Elaheebocus

As NHS unions ballot their members for strike action, Helen O’Connor explains why health workers getting organised and taking industrial action is essential to saving the NHS

As strike ballots open across the NHS, all staff, particularly nurses, should vote yes. Until NHS staff themselves stand up and fight back en masse, the attacks on the NHS will continue and get worse.

Cuts and privatisation caused by constant rounds of restructuring have fragmented the NHS to the point it’s dying on its feet. This is manifested by the dangerously low levels of experienced staff which leads to patient neglect and premature deaths. The gateways into the NHS are being shut for tens of thousands requiring medical treatment.

The catastrophe unfolding across the NHS is no accident, it has been deliberately designed and implemented by successive governments. Governments determined to reduce overall state expenditure on health and distance themselves from the historic obligation to provide free healthcare to the population.

Where the NHS is concerned It serves no good purpose to erase history just because it might be politically convenient to do so. Understanding the whole history of the NHS, why it was founded, how it worked, how and why it is being systematically destroyed by stealth is essential in the struggle to fight to preserve what is left of a free, publicly-provided health service. The attacks on the NHS did not begin 12 years ago, they started decades ago as successive governments enabled the free market to get a grip on the health service.

NHS ‘reform’ was planned under Thatcher and enthusiastically rolled out by the Blair administration. Staff and the public were sold a lie that private investment in public services was necessary and that anything publicly provided was lumbering, old-fashioned, inefficient and in need of streamlining and ‘modernisation’. An entire and costly bureaucracy developed around the tendering and administration of contracts as outsourcing took off and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) hospitals were built at extortionate cost to the public purse.

After the financial crash of 2008, there was constant restructuring in the large mental health trust where I worked which shook the organisation to the core. Service redesign as it was called, had an adverse impact on patients. Staff were moved from post to pillar, there was both down-banding and deskilling of staff. Training budgets were slashed and the skill mix was driven down in teams delivering services to patients.

Against this backdrop clinical staff found ourselves emotionally manipulated by managers who were themselves driving harmful cuts to patient care. The entire burden of ensuring patients were safe and cared for was shifted onto the staff as the rug was being slowly pulled from under us. Staff responded by skipping breaks, working overtime for free, going off sick with stress or leaving to find that things were just as bad or even worse in another organisation.

No NHS trust, staff member, patient or carer in this country has escaped the harmful impact of toxic policies handed down by successive governments. Policies that are deliberately forged to hand healthcare over to the private sector and have the population reliant on an insurance-based model of healthcare provision.

It is clear that the trajectory for the NHS is downwards so staff and campaigners have little choice left but to fight for it or lose it entirely. If there are any NHS staff labouring under the false notion that things will improve for themselves or patients anytime soon they are gravely mistaken. The same choice facing every worker in this country is facing NHS staff too, either leave the job and risk ending up in a similar or worse job or stay, fight back and make work better.

Multiple NHS unions are balloting for strike action including the GMB, RCN, BMA, Unison and Unite. The GMB indicative ballot is open and running until 27 September via a combination of workplace ballots, online and e-voting. All NHS staff have a rare opportunity to get together collectively and utilise their trade unions to have their voices heard. If NHS staff vote to strike in large numbers they will be supported by everyone including other union members.

GMB is encouraging NHS staff to join, to step up as representatives and properly organise your hospitals and community teams. Why? Because organising works but it is not yet widespread in hospital trusts due to successful methods of resistance by NHS management. Having worked in the NHS for almost three decades in a wide variety of settings I know that NHS managers will only sit up and listen when confronted with the power of large numbers of unionised and organised workers ready to take action.

So the stakes are high and the pressure is on. All of the major political parties have an established track record of taking a wrecking ball to the NHS. The NHS unions are slowly moving in the right direction and standing up for staff and services but more staff need to join unions, engage with unions and get active.

It’s time for all NHS staff, especially nurses to vote yes to industrial action during this ballot period. Going on strike is now essential and legitimate to protect clinical staff, patients and the NHS for the future.

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