'If we don't vote then nothing will change'

In Part 4 of our ‘Have your Say on NHS Pay’ series, Unite rep and hospital administrative worker Laura urges members to vote in the NHS consultative ballot

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Unite’s consultative ballot on industrial action over NHS pay in England closes on September 30. Each day this week, we’ll hear from a different member from our Unite health sector who explains why it’s so important to have your say on pay.

Unite senior rep Laura has a unique, bird’s eye view of the huge challenges facing hospital nurses and other staff. As an adminstrative worker at a London hospital, she is involved in supporting the workforce – and Laura reports the picture has never been bleaker.

“We’ve had very high levels of sickness related to mental health issues – anxiety, depression, PTSD, you name it,” Laura explains. “It leaves the remaining staff under so much pressure because then we’re short-staffed. We then have to turn to agency staff, who don’t always show up – that in turn causes its own problems since it places a financial strain on the trust by having to pay for agency staff.”

Laura reports that the wellbeing of staff now is so poor that a growing number are quitting or deciding to retire early. In recent weeks, the hospital where Laura works has had more than 20 intensive care nurses leave.

“These are highly trained, highly experienced nurses,” Laura noted. “We aren’t going to be able to replace that skill set.”

Laura has seen with her own eyes how the cost of living crisis has hit hospital staff hard. She said when she first saw the warning signs of the impending crisis, she highlighted the issue with management.

“Our chief executive has been really supportive,” she said, noting that they’ve set up a cost of living crisis working group, which is composed of lay members of staff, union representatives, and the hospital’s wellbeing section.

Through the working group, management have extended the hours of a free shuttle bus so that night staff can avail themselves of free transport. The working group has also set up a system of referrals to Trussell Trust food banks which are issued on a strictly confidential basis. They’ve worked with another charity called Smile, to provide free school uniforms, and staff can also receive vouchers for supermarkets.

“It’s all done confidentially, and I do think it’s helped, but really we’re just scratching the surface,” Laura noted. “Because if you can’t afford rent, and you can’t afford fuel when petrol prices are going through the roof, then all we’re doing is tinkering at the edges.”

The only way NHS staff will be able to beat the cost of living crisis is through a substantial pay increase – one which they both more than deserve and also desperately need.

But this year, the NHS pay review body (PRB) put forward a pay rise that’s the equivalent of just 4 per cent for most staff. At a time when the RPI measure of inflation has exceeded 12 per cent, it’s a huge pay cut.

Recounting when the pay rise was announced in July, Laura said it was “laughable, insulting – but I wasn’t really surprised”.

“It’s really galling after all we’ve been through,” she noted. “We’ve served our country during the pandemic. We had to scrimp and save over the last ten years during austerity when we endured pay freeze after pay freeze and below-inflation pay rises. They need to bring us up to the wage we would have had – at the end of the day we’re not asking for a lot.”

Laura agreed with all the NHS workers UniteLive spoke to this week who all feared that the NHS as we know it will all but collapse if a decent pay rise is not forthcoming.

“The bottom line is if the government doesn’t increase pay, there will not be an NHS,” she said. “We won’t be there to bail out the government next time there is a pandemic. People will literally be dying in the streets. We’ll be going back to Victorian times when vast numbers of people will die from the flu.”

Laura believes that the only way Unite health members’ views over pay will be heard is by voting in the union’s consultative ballot which closes next Friday, September 30.

For those who might be reticent in voting in the upcoming ballot on industrial action over NHS pay, Laura emphasised that ‘industrial action’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean all-out strike action.

“I know there may not be a widespread appetite for strike action among NHS staff, but this ballot isn’t about that,” she said. “Industrial action can be something as simple as not starting before your shift starts; it can mean taking all the breaks you’re entitled to; you take your full lunch break and you leave on time. That can be just as effective as a strike.”

She urged all Unite members working in the health service to have their say on pay.

 “If we don’t vote in large numbers then nothing will change – staff will only be put under greater stress, they’ll be more likely to become ill, and they’ll then be more likely to leave the NHS because they aren’t being supported. And as it stands now we cannot afford to lose the NHS. Voting is the only way we’ll get our message across.”

 If you’re a Unite member working in the health sector in England, it’s not too late to vote in the consultative ballot on industrial action over NHS pay. You will have already received either an email notification or letter with a QR code to vote online. If you haven’t received either of these, you should speak to your rep in the first instance, or email [email protected]  The ballot closes next Friday on September 30.

By Hajera Blagg

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