Tracey and colleagues in 1982
1982 to 2014: Striking for fair pay in the NHS
Some things have changed since the last big national pay strike in the NHS 32 years ago. I was a size 10 back then, and had moved on from platforms and flares to the New Romantic style, while friends were sporting ra-ra skirts and legwarmers – and that was just the blokes!
No mobile phones. No internet. We danced to number ones such as Eddie Grant ‘I don’t want to dance’, and top songs from Adam Ant, Madness, Jam. There was also Bucks Fizz who kicked off the year at number one with Land Of Make-Believe, and Rene and Renata were warbling to us with ‘Save Your Love’.
As a nurse I was earning £300 a month – equivalent to about £1000 now. The Tories had wrecked the economy: inflation had come down from 18% in 1980 and almost 12% in 1981 to 8.6%.. Companies were going broke at a record rate, with 11,000 bankruptcies in 1982. Mortgage interest rates were in double figures.
So our demand in the pay dispute was an increase of 12.5% – far more ambitious than today’s 1%.
Other things haven’t changed. In 1982, as today the England football team managed to disappoint in the World Cup, eliminated in Spain from group B without losing a game, the same as Cameroon.
Then, as now, a right wing Tory government was cutting the NHS, cutting welfare, attacking the unions, and planning ever more privatisation. A British task force sailed off to wage war – that time against Argentina over the Falkland Islands, even though few Brits knew where they were.
The NHS workforce were on long hours, under pressure, underrated.
Like health workers today, we knew we weren’t the cause of the economic problems that the government used as an excuse to keep our pay so low. But we also knew we had no choice but to fight back if we were to be taken seriously. If there was money for war there was money to pay NHS staff
I had become involved in COHSE as a student nurse shop steward. The reason was simple: on my own I was just a little voice but with others we could speak together with a big voice.
Most previous national disputes in the NHS had been led by non-clinical support staff: 1982 was the first to reach out across the board and link up all staff – including nurses and other professionals. We all knew we had no other option to prevent ourselves being treated with contempt and ignored.
With huge public support – which is still there whenever health workers take action today – and with supporting strikes from print workers and electricians and others which are now sadly illegal, we won a settlement that included the establishment of an independent Pay Review Body that has underpinned the pay of NHS staff ever since.
Today’s action takes place because Jeremy Hunt has for the first time set aside the recommendations of the Pay Review Body for a 1% increase across the board, and imposed a settlement that would leave more than half NHS staff with no increase at all this year or next. He’s made clear that if he gets away with this he will wage further attacks on our Agenda for Change pay agreement.
So we have to fight.
But another parallel today is that determined strike action always helps strengthen the union, increases the confidence of its members, draws in new activists to become stewards and reps, and attracts those who previously had not joined but want to defend their living standards.
We’re starting from a different place in 2014, but we can still move in the same direction and make lasting gains as we fight for fair pay.