At last month's AGM we discussed, as a branch, our campaigning priorities for the coming year. It was agreed we must continue to fight the imposition of the Trade Union bill, a piece of legislation that is effectively one of the gravest attacks on our civil liberties in recent years. As important as the fight against the TU bill is, the sharpest end of the struggle to defend the NHS right now is the Junior Doctor’s dispute. If Hunt breaks the Junior Doctors', we can be sure that nurses and other NHS workers will be next in the firing line. What are being referred to as the 'Agenda for Change Refresh talks’ are an attempt by the government to reduce costs and this is certain to entail an assault on AfC terms and conditions.
The BMA, as a professional organisation rather than a trade union, has been on a rather steep learning curve. From initially expecting a rational, serious and fair dialogue from an ideologically driven Tory government, they have now taken off the gloves and are in this to win. The course of the dispute has thrown up many arguments and debates and I would like to look at some of the most common
1) The doctors didn’t come out and support our pickets when nurses were on strike.
A minority of nurses took the view that as doctors were not present on our pickets, we owed them no favours. This is a fatal attitude to adopt. As already mentioned, strikes are one of the steepest learning curves we can embark upon. It’s when ideas of trade unionism and solidarity can leap off the pages of history books and come alive. I have heard many doctors’ express gratitude at the solidarity offered by their nursing (and ancillary) colleagues. Some have stated that this has demonstrated, as someone once said, “we are all in this together.” Personally I was struck by how the focus on the doctor’s pickets was not on pay but on defending the NHS. At a recent meeting, a medical student stated that in future we all need to support each other.
2) The BMA are not affiliated to the TUC so we don’t officially take a position.
It sometimes seems to grassroots activists that union leaders spend more energy finding ways to avoid effective action than supporting workers in dispute, General Secretaries live in fear of “placing the union in legal jeopardy.” No serious union activist calls for, or encourages, reckless action that will squander our members hard earned subs. In Britain we already operate under the most restrictive anti-union legislation in western Europe. Nevertheless, recent examples show what a hollow threat that legislation often is. In 2009 and 2012, members of the Prison Officers Association (POA) walked out, i.e. took unofficial action. On both occasions they walked out en masse, and on both occasions the government stood by helpless as they were terrified that taking any legal action such as sequestrating (seizing) union funds would merely worsen the situation and harden the POA’s resolve. In the run up to the London Olympics in 2012 the electricians working at the Olympic Park staged a mass, unofficial walkout over pay. Such was the government’s panic about not having the park ready for the games, they caved in and met the demands of the sparks, with not a glance towards the law.
3) We can’t advocate secondary action.
See above. The only reason that we can openly organise as trade unionists is that two hundred years ago, a group of agricultural workers in Tolpuddle, Dorset, banded together to resist starvation wages and as a result were transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Following a massive outcry and campaign they were freed and returned to England. If they had been principally concerned to avoid “placing themselves in legal jeopardy,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.
4) Doctors are a privileged profession, earning good money.
A newly qualified Junior Doctor starts on £26,000 a year, about the same as a band 5 staff nurse. A train driver typically earns £40-50,000 a year. Is this because the government values train drivers more than doctors? Or is it because the train drivers’ union, the RMT (particularly the late Bob Crow), has consistently shown that it won’t be pushed around and has flexed its industrial muscles? In so doing, winning very favourable terms & conditions for its members.
5) I don’t work weekends so it doesn’t affect me.
If it is going to cost your employer no more to have you working a weekend than a weekday, you will find yourself working weekends in Hunt’s ‘seven day NHS.’
In conclusion, Hunt’s bullying and incompetent attempt to impose the new contract met with the most magnificent response from the BMA. It is clear they are not going to lie down and accept this. The doctor’s pickets have been vibrant and the massive turnout in their ballots easily smashed Cameron’s 50% threshold. We need to be standing absolutely foursquare behind the doctors’ because their fight is very much our fight.
Stephen McLean is the newly elected Chair of Sussex Partnership Branch and Branch International Officer. This article is a personal view and not one necessarily endorsed by Branch.