Fighting for the NHS While Fighting Coronavirus

In response to coronavirus, management in some hospitals are pushing through reforms to workers' conditions and NHS services they planned before the crisis. To protect the NHS, we'll need to fight back.

The coronavirus pandemic has proved beyond question it is the working class that keeps society running. But the truth is that those going out every day to deliver our vital services every day – from NHS nurses through to cleaners, ambulance personnel, delivery drivers, posties and many others – have had their wages, terms and conditions driven down for years.

At the moment, our NHS workers are being lauded as heroes. In the trade union movement, we welcome this – but if it is to be more than a platitude we must demand that they are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. And this must be truly reflected in their pay, terms and conditions. Making bold demands to properly protect and pay our key workers is absolutely vital to ensuring we have an NHS that, after decades of cuts and privatisation, we can rely on to see us through this national emergency.

It has been proven time and again that the collective organisation of working-class people within trade unions can delivers benefits to society as a whole. In 2018, hospital cleaners organised into my own union, GMB, and employed by Mitie, fought off a reduction in their hours and the cleaning services at St. George’s Hospital. Their brave campaign was widely supported because everyone knew that reducing cleaning in a hospital was a health risk to both patients and staff. When more than 300 cleaners voted for strike action it had the effect of forcing corporate power to back down. There was little doubt that organising and engaging our members gave the GMB the type of bargaining power that gives negotiations serious leverage.

During this period of crisis rapid restructuring and redeployment is gathering pace in workplaces and some of these changes will cause problems for workers and service delivery further down the line. Local plans are being pushed through without consultation with unions or our members, which is clearly not satisfactory. NHS nurses and others are being rushed to work in roles they are unfamiliar with and minimum training is being offered while patients’ lives are placed in their hands.

Hospital workers have been threatened with dismissal if they express worries about going into coronavirus areas with no PPE, and they are being bullied into working without protection by managers who are safely sitting at home. In this period where guidance and information is unclear and confusing, key workers are joining unions in greater numbers because they want honest information that protects them and, above all, they want leadership.

While unions understand that events are moving rapidly in response to this crisis any continuation of cuts and closures in our NHS and key public services must be opposed in the strongest terms. It flies in the face of reason that when there is a shortage of bed capacity in our current hospitals, and expensive field hospitals are being created, existing hospital wards are still being closed down. 

We must not allow employers to drive through detrimental changes, planned before this crisis, that are deliberately designed to continue shrinking the NHS and the welfare state over the longer term. We all need to think about what our NHS and public services will look like when we are out the other side of this crisis. We cannot allow unnecessary risks to be taken with the lives of any key worker – and nor can we allow their efforts during this crisis to contribute to the continued running down of their terms and conditions once it ends.

Trade unions are finding new methods to engage with and organise our growing membership so that we can effectively oppose job changes that might be detrimental to public safety and sustainable service delivery. As management in many places continue to force workers to work without PPE and dismiss their complaints about unsafe conditions, our message to workers is clear: join your union and get active. Many of your colleagues already have.

Trade unions like my own GMB union will continue to lead the fight to get PPE to workers who need it across the country. We have a role to ensure throughout this crisis that workers’ voices are heard at the top table and that their demands are met. In the long term, this is what will keep workers, patients and the public safe.