Manchester NHS workers get back pay thanks to UNISON campaign

Healthcare assistants are re-banded after the union revealed that they were carrying out clinical tasks that were above the grade they had been hired on

Manchester healthcare assistants organising committee

In a landmark victory, thousands of workers across Manchester have received up to £5,000 in backdated earnings thanks to UNISON’s hard-won, six-year battle to have their roles re-banded.

For years, healthcare assistants (HCAs) in hospitals across the city have been performing clinical duties that are above their pay grade. After joining forces within the union’s North West region, they’ve forced Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust to reward and recognise this.

The campaign began in 2016, when Manchester University Health Branch provided diaries to HCAs to document what duties they were doing every day. As branch secretary Wendy Guest explains: “An overwhelming number were doing clinical duties that were above their band and pay”.

Recognising that there was an uphill battle ahead, with the need for a clear strategy and proper resources, in 2019 the region put together a successful UNISON fighting fund bid to employ 10 organisers to be deployed in branches where HCAs were going above and beyond, without being properly paid for doing so.

The result was only possible through what UNISON regional organiser Dan Smith describes as “deep organising”.

“We started off by doing walk rounds in hospitals, face-to-face surveys and meetings to find out what duties healthcare assistants were doing, and how their daily duties matched up to what they were actually paid to do,” he says.

When the results came in, the problem was clear. The majority of healthcare assistants were directly employed on band 2 contracts, which involved the provision of personal care such as bathing, feeding and toileting patients.

However, UNISON found they were also often performing band 3 clinical duties, such as taking and monitoring bloods, carrying out electrocardiogram (ECG) tests, escorting patients unaccompanied, dealing with complex dressings, cannulating veins and recording patient observations.

“We had member meetings where we went through the findings together”, says Mr Smith. When they discovered that people on band 2 contracts were regularly and routinely doing higher band tasks, they asked members what they were willing to do to tackle that.

The answer came in the form of a collective grievance that 350 members put their names to. In the first instance, the trust was slow to respond. So to bring management to the negotiating table, UNISON went to the press and politicians. 

The union organised meetings between frontline healthcare assistants and their local MPs, which eventually led to a Greater Manchester HCA summit, bringing together more than 20 workers with MPs and councillors from across the city. After that event, the group published an open letter signed by seven Greater Manchester MPs and over 40 councillors, urging three key NHS trusts to resolve the long-running dispute.

As a result, three of the biggest trusts in Manchester agreed to collective negotiations with UNISON and then to a Greater Manchester ‘framework agreement’, which ensured the re-banding of healthcare assistants and the potential for back pay up to 1 April 2018.

Members were balloted on the agreement and overwhelmingly accepted.

All HCAs at the trust are now having their jobs reviewed and officially re-banded, and as of last month, back pay began to appear in people’s bank accounts.

The trust has estimated that resolving the issue will cost £16m to resolve this, to which Mr Smith responds: “That’s money that should have been in our members’ pockets anyway. And it’s also about reward, respect and recognition. By making this a band 3 role, it creates upward pressure on wages”.

The impact of the campaign is now being felt in real terms by hospital workers.

UNISON rep Jenna Rooney said she was recently stopped in the corridor by a member who had received £8,000 in their previous pay packet given the back pay.

“It’s amazing to see members receive this – especially at this time when the cost of living is through the roof and people are really struggling. It’s nice for people to have that extra bit of money, to have a bit of breathing space for a month or two.”

Ms Rooney, who has worked as a clinical support worker for Manchester Royal Infirmary for seven years, was heavily involved in the campaign.

“I was going around wards, getting people to sign petitions and being as visible and loud as I could. We had to send a clear message that it wasn’t acceptable for management to treat us like that any more.

“I don’t think the trust expected it to be as big as it is, and it’s been great for union recruitment because it demonstrates the power of collective action. The possibilities feel endless now.”

For Ms Guest, the success of the campaign is all due to the members.

“People come up to me and say ‘thank you’ for what’s been achieved, but I tell them: ‘you don’t need to thank me, it’s you’. Campaigns only work if the members are involved – that’s the only way you don’t lose momentum.

“I’m so proud of all the HCAs that were scared and concerned about putting themselves out there to challenge management. This is what they’ve achieved.”

Ms Guest is hopeful that the success in Manchester will inspire other health workers across the country to do the same. “The groundwork has been done, we’ve won. If we’re one of the largest trusts in the country and we’ve achieved it, it’s possible anywhere”.