Nursing staff in the British state health service NHS voted in favor of strikes in a ballot. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union, which organizes more than 300,000 nurses, is demanding higher wages but also better precautions to ensure patient safety. The strike is the first in the organization's 106-year history.
“Anger drives us to action. That's enough, say our members,” said Pat Cullen, Secretary General of the RCN. For too long, carers have had to struggle privately with financial problems because they were treated unfairly when it came to rewards.
With reference to years of real losses, the union is demanding a wage increase of five percentage points above the index of retail prices. This currently corresponds to 17 percent. In the current year, employees in the NHS have been paid an average of 4.75 per cent more than in the previous year.
The RCN vote heralds a winter of civil action in the UK. More than a million public employees are currently being polled in ballots. There are also 400,000 NHS workers who are organized in the Unison union.
But not only health care is affected. Only on Tuesday, the members of the University and Colleges Union - including lecturers, librarians and researchers - voted to strike.
Voting is still ongoing in the teachers union. And since the summer, railway and postal workers have repeatedly been on strike by the day. On Thursday, all underground traffic in London was affected.
After years of austerity policies in the wake of the financial crisis, employees in the public sector had to be content with comparatively low wage adjustments for a long time. In the meantime, the price development has made it even more difficult.
Consumer prices increased by 10.1 percent in September. There is no end in sight to the inflationary trend: in October groceries were again 14.7 percent more expensive than in the previous year.
The walkout hits the NHS at a difficult time. State health care has been suffering from ever-scarcer funding for years. In addition, the Covid pandemic has made many treatments difficult for months.
In the meantime, a considerable backlog has accumulated. 7.1 million Britons were waiting for hospital treatment at the end of September, including more than 400,000 who have been waiting longer than 52 weeks.
In the past few weeks, doctors have repeatedly warned of the upcoming flu season, which is likely to put additional pressure on the supply. They strongly advise vaccinations, if only to relieve the system.
Jodie Elliot, a hospital nurse, told the BBC that her salary has not been adjusted for inflation in years, but the situation is getting really difficult. In the meantime, she can often no longer even replace worn-out clothes and shoes.
“My mother takes me shopping. Crazy for a woman in her mid-30s.” She also dropped out of the NHS pension fund because she could no longer afford the contributions.
Nursing salaries have fallen by 15 percent in real terms, i.e. adjusted for inflation, on average over the past ten years, said Anne Marie Rafferty, professor of nursing at King's College London.
The wage level is thus increasingly becoming a systemic problem. Tens of thousands of positions are vacant, trained nurses switch to other areas. “We are understaffed on every shift. It's going to be dangerous for patient care," Elliot confirmed.
"With the strike, we're thinking about the patients as much as the caregivers," Cullen said. "The standards have already fallen far too low."
In the education sector, teachers also complain that they can no longer cover everyday life with their salary - and that they see no other option than to look for jobs in other areas. But there are no signs of a convergence in any of the affected sectors. In the rail and transport sector, where the strike has been going on since June, there has been no rapprochement so far.
The budget, which will be presented next week, presents a good opportunity to set a new direction and invest seriously, Cullen suggested. But it doesn't look like that. On November 17th, Jeremy Hunt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, will present the new government's financing plans in his autumn address.
The focus is on tax increases and spending cuts. They are intended to plug the around £55 billion (€63 billion) fiscal gap created by the multi-billion dollar Covid and energy crisis bailout packages.
With the ballot, nurses have a mandate for strikes until May 2023. They want to start the walkouts before Christmas. Large parts of the country are affected, but in some hospital districts in England the legally stipulated participation in the vote was not achieved.
The RCN emphasized that emergency care should be maintained. But routine treatments are likely to become more difficult.
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