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Old picture of Junior Doctors outside Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Old picture of Junior Doctors outside Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Photo: Roger Blackwell / Wikicommons / cropped from originals / shared under CC2.0 license / linked below

The NHS is in crisis, and clinical staff must join other NHS workers in strike action to save the health service, argues Helen O’Connor

The GMB union has become the first trade union in the country to open a full legal ballot for industrial action in the NHS. As GMB members up and down the country are checking their posts for their ballot papers, we know that many of them will be asking how it has come to this. How have we reached a situation in this country where NHS staff are so undervalued, where patient neglect and deaths are on the rise, and where increasing numbers of people are denied healthcare?

Some may argue that strikes will make this situation worse, but for more than a decade the NHS has been subjected to a brutal regime of cuts, and there has been no coordinated resistance. Some senior trust leaders, and their friends and families running private companies, have become emboldened by the lack of collective trade-union resistance. The result is an increase in the exploitation of staff and the erosion of the right to free healthcare.

The looting of public assets and corrupt practices are increasing across the board. In one large south London trust, a facilities manager was forced to step down following the media getting hold of evidence of an affair with a director of a private company that opened the door to advantages in a contract for a tendering process. In a different London trust, a director signed a gagging order which prevented procurement fraud, to the tune of millions, from ever being publicly exposed.

As efficiency savings, that is cuts of millions of pounds, are being made following restrictions in Covid19 funding, NHS trusts continue to hire staff at the senior band 8b level, whilst rigging the job evaluation processes to deny lower banded staff the right to have their job roles upgraded.

The Integrated Care Systems (ICS) embed market principles into the NHS even further, because if one trust fails to perform financially, every aligned trust will also fail, dragging the entire system into a financial quagmire of penalty fines, debts and further demands to find cost savings. It’s the frontline staff and the patients who will feel the impact of this mounting catastrophe in pay, terms, conditions, deteriorating safety, and care standards.

The need for collective action

Whilst some trade unionists try to mount challenges via the joint staff side committees, collective trade-union activity remains the only effective way to cut through and win demands. Clinical NHS staff have much to learn industrially from the soft-facilities management staff in their hospitals. The lower banded staff, the porters, cleaners and others, tend to stick together and engage well with trade unions, and they are already at the vanguard of fighting for their rights. These workers have won struggles against corporate power through strikes, protests and collective action. Protests and strikes work, so these methods must be utilised more widely in the NHS.

Yes, the challenges are great, facility time for NHS trade-union representatives is hard to get, organising is difficult, and staff are exhausted. However, things won’t be worse than they were in 1889 when a poverty-stricken, illiterate young worker called Will Thorne led the London dock strikes, founding the union which is the ancestor of today’s GMB.

We know that NHS nurses and other clinical workers can also become workplace leaders, which is why we are taking a bold lead in opening up a legal strike ballot across the NHS. Clinical staff must be given the same opportunities to fight back collectively as the NHS soft-facilities management staff.

The GMB message to NHS clinical staff is simple: fight now and if you can’t do it for yourselves, do it for your patients, your kids and for the future of the NHS. Check your post, vote in the strike ballot, and let’s face the new year with a mandate for industrial action, and the real hope that leading the battle to protect the NHS will give everyone.

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