The junior doctors dispute is the most important industrial confrontation in years. Chris Nineham explains why they need all our support in the coming strike
History works in unexpected ways. Junior doctors are now fighting the most important industrial confrontation with the governments in years.
There are a number of reasons why this strike is so crucial. Junior doctors are at the heart of the best-loved institution in Britain. And they have very effectively made the point that the way staff are treated affects the nature of the service.
Changing the game
But their campaign isn’t just about unbearable work levels and a pay cut. There is a growing awareness that the government plans to dismantle the NHS as we know it. The attack on the doctors is part of creating an NHS workforce that is less qualified, cheaper and quicker to train. De-skilling has been the prelude to every health privatisation around the world. And privatisation is gathering speed. In 2014 alone, out of £9.63bn worth of NHS deals signed, £3.54bn (nearly 40% of them) went to private firms.
The government’s policy documents themselves show that the endgame is an NHS as state insurer along the lines of Medicare in the US, with patients allocated personal health budgets, making them self-paying consumers in a market-based system.
If widespread support for the doctors is partly based on anxiety about the direction the NHS is going, the government’s high-handed reponse to the strikes has only spread sympathy. By unilaterally imposing the contract, Jeremy Hunt has shown contempt for both the doctors and the millions who support them. No wonder opinion polls show 3 out of 4 people support the strikes.
It has made a huge difference too that the doctors have fought the changes to their contracts with energy and urgency. Their picket lines have been big and lively, their tactics - setting up ‘meet the doctors’ events near hospitals, organising a series of big demonstrations - have been imaginative and effective. They have understood the importance of appealing to people politically, and actively seeking to link with others, including the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, who want to defend the NHS.
Crucially, when faced with Jeremy Hunt’s arrogant imposition just after the last strike, the doctors did what needed to be done: they escalated.
Finally, this is the first major industrial dispute to take place ‘after Corbyn’. Thanks to Corbyn’s rise, alternatives to privatisation and cutbacks are part of the national discussion, and his success has stirred hope for change. All this gives the doctors' fight added impetus and significance.
Everyone can help
The stakes could hardly be higher. If the doctors succeed it would be a blow to those who want to wreck the NHS. But it would also send a message to every trade unionist in the country that you can take the Tories on and win. At the same time it would help to drive the Corbyn project forward.
The crucial thing now is to turn the widespread public support that exists into real solidarity. The things that can push the government back is turning the dispute into a mobilising centre for the whole movement.
There are lots of ways to do this. There are simple things like circulating petitions around your work or college and passing a resolution in support of the strikes. Energetically building the People's Assembly demonstration on April 16 is vital too - it comes right in the middle of the doctors' strike.
But most important of all is winning visible solidarity for the next strike on 9 March. Student nurses - themselves fighting against bursary cuts - have given a strong lead by organising walkouts of lectures to coincide with the strikes. But everyone, everywhere, should try to organise groups of people from their workplace or college to get down to the picket lines next Wednesday for solidarity rallies. Bring union banners, bring placards, but most important, bring people.
In London on the day of the strike the doctors will be assembling outside the BBC on Portland Place at 5.30pm to make their case. We should all join them to show the breadth of support.
Start spreading the word now. Get in touch with your local hospital and invite a junior doctor and a student nurse to come and speak at a union meeting and in student unions. And start organising now to get people down to the picket lines and rallies next Wednesday.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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