Workers speak from the picket lines of largest nurses strike in UK history

“It’s their ideology; they won’t invest in a part of the country where they don’t see a profit. When they supply weapons of course, it is different.”

Our reporters20 December 2022

World Socialist Web Site reporters spoke to nurses on picket lines during Tuesday’s national strike. They distributed copies of the statement, “For a general strike to back nurses’ fight to defend the NHS from UK Tory government: Build rank-and-file committees!” and “NHS nurse and ambulance strikes face UK government, army and sellout by union leaders”.

Addenbrookes Hospital picket line, December 20, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

Up to 100,000 National Health Service (NHS) nurses took action throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They struck at nearly 80 employers, including major hospitals in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Bradford, Cambridge and Nottingham.

Ambulance workers throughout England and Wales are to strike on Wednesday, with a further strike on December 28.

The nurses strike over pay followed the first ever national walkout by the profession held last Thursday, in which tens of thousands participated. Nurses, representative of all 1.5 million NHS workers, are opposing the massive real-terms pay cut imposed by Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government, an average nominal rise of 4 percent, 10 percent below the RPI rate of inflation.

Last week’s action went ahead despite concerted efforts by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union bureaucracy to sabotage the only two days of national action called by the organisation in 106 years and the only ones ever in the 70+ years history of the NHS.

The RCN balloted its members to fight for a pay rise of almost 20 percent—RPI inflation, plus 5 percent. But as the first strike approached the union ditched this demand, with leader Pat Cullen stating that if the government would only discuss pay then a lower deal could be negotiated. “Come to the table and let’s have the discussion… It’s not about lining their [nurses]… pockets with gold,” she stated.

Last Friday, the Times reported that Cullen had made clear “the demand for a wage rise five percentage points above inflation was ‘a starting point’, in the clearest hint that her union would settle for significantly less if [Health Secretary Steve] Barclay agreed to talk ‘seriously and respectfully’ about nurses’ pay.”

The nurses enjoy massive popular support in the working class at a time when millions including rail, postal, education and other public sector employees are themselves fighting their employers and the government to demand higher pay and end to attacks on the conditions, pensions and jobs. Yet every statement from Cullen is based on futile appeal for compromise to Sunak’s class war government and apologias for going on strike.

No such compromise will emerge from the Tory government.

In a front-page interview with the Daily Mail, headed, “Rishi: I won’t back down over strikes”, the newspaper reported, “Rishi Sunak warned striking unions yesterday that he was ready to hold out against their ‘unreasonable’ pay demands indefinitely. Speaking to the Mail before the biggest strike week in decades, the prime minister indicated he would tolerate months of disruption rather than risk an inflationary wage-price spiral.”

Daily Mail headline, “Rishi: I won’t back down on strikes” [Photo: screenshot of Daily Mail print edition, December 20, 2022]

The government’s agenda is to defeat the nurses’ pay claim to set a precedent for every worker in the public sector. On Tuesday afternoon, it again refused to entertain any discussion over pay.

NHS workers are up against the entire political establishment. The Tories’ hardline is matched by the Labour Party-led Welsh devolved government, who have offered NHS workers a pay offer of between 4 percent and 5.5 percent.

There were no nurses strikes in Scotland Tuesday, after the unions negotiated a below inflation deal with the Scottish National Party administration.

Leeds General Infirmary

Rebecca, a coordinator at the Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) trauma centre, said the strike was about “the working conditions for nurses, and pay. We need to attract more people into the profession, we need more nurses on the ward, on the front line, providing hands on patient care. We need that care to be better and to do that we need better nurse to patient ratios. The only way we are going to do that is by paying a fair wage so that nurses can afford the cost of living.

Rebecca (left on the picket line at Leeds General Infirmary [Photo: WSWS]

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