Blog: After everything, a pay cut is the bitterest of blows

Our health conference is a reminder of the sacrifices our health members have made, the challenges to come – and what we can achieve together

general secretary Christina McAnea with UNISON members outside a London hospital

UNISON’s health conference, held online today and tomorrow, is an important opportunity for health workers to discuss what’s important to them, and to use our union’s democracy to shape what we do next.

It’s often our paramedics, nurses, cleaners, porters and healthcare assistants who front up many of our high-profile campaigns in UNISON.

But whether someone works in a public-facing role or a job behind the scenes, they are part of one team. Because everyone’s job makes a difference in keeping the NHS running, and on the care and support patients get. That’s why UNISON’s OneTeam2K pay campaign resonated with so many members.

The Westminster government’s pay increase of 3% for NHS workers in England has already been wiped out by inflation. And that’s before the impending cut to universal credit and the national insurance hike are factored in.

Health workers are fed up, exhausted and facing huge pressures in their workplaces. It’s no wonder over 80% of UNISON’s health members who took part in our recent consultation in England are not happy with the pay rise and are ready to challenge the government.

The results of the consultation with NHS members in Cymru/Wales are still being analysed and our Northern Ireland branches and members are always ready to stand up and fight for what’s right, and to build on the brilliant success they had in their last strike.

Roz Norman, Maura McKenna and Wilma Brown, the health service group chairing team, reminded us in their speeches today that the consequences of the virus for health and care staff were devastating.

Workers lost their lives trying to save others from COVID and we, in UNISON, will always remember that each one had a family, friends, loved ones when their lives cut short.

For other workers, they lost colleagues, saw the worst effects of the virus on patients and still worked relentlessly throughout the pandemic.

Wilma reminded us that health workers felt the vaccination programme gave them the hope they needed to get through the last horrible months. And the successful vaccine rollout is another credit to the NHS workforce. So, it is a bitter blow that they should now face a real terms pay cut, likely to deepen as more economic crises unfold.

Whatever strategy our members choose to take in our ongoing pay campaign, we must continue to build our membership, to organise and to mobilise.

That means members voting in every ballot, recruiting colleagues to join UNISON, turning up to branch meetings, and campaigning to get out the vote in every consultation and indicative ballot.

We’ve mobilised before, and we can do it again. In her speech today, Maura rightly said: “It’s a huge testament to the union that even during a global pandemic, we’ve brokered agreements, influenced legislation, supported insourcing campaigns and done deals that put money in members’ pockets.”

The very reason why all this is possible, is because nobody is alone – we are all part of UNISON, the biggest union, and we are a family.