Union coups: It’s the same tired old song, rolled out whenever Conservatives feel the pinch. And sometimes even when they are not. In that sense, Liz Truss’s rage at “militant unions” and her alleged involvement in their comedic “coalition against growth” was nothing more than scratched vinyl. Wow, how that party needs a new stylus.
Disruption, however, is coming. Strike votes are planned or underway across the public sector, including the Royal College of Nursing. First potential strike over wages. But it is the direct result of conservative policies, exacerbated by the spectacular economic chaos cause by the Truss and Kwarteng mini-budget, rather than any union militancy.
It is not militancy that motivates this, or anything like that. The workers currently contemplating industrial action are not naturally militant. Nurses heal the sick. Teachers and their support staff encourage our children’s learning and growth. There are better paying jobs they could be doing. They know that when they embark on these careers, but they are people with a vocation.
The problem is that even vocations have to pay enough to cover the bills, and right now, they’re not. As their wages erode, many feel they have no choice but to strike. I suspect the public gets it: too many are in the same boat.
There’s a grim joke in the health service when it comes to Truss’s proposals for minimum staffing levels during industrial action: It could mean that, for once, hospitals will be adequately staffed. If you have a family member in the hospital, you have the unions to thank: they are on strike for adequate staffing. Although, God knows how the managers are going to meet Truss’s demands. The NHS has over 130,000 vacancies.
Strike or not strike? Faced with government contempt and bailiffs pounding on the door, some hospitals have gone as far as set up food banks for your staff – others have found a different option: they leave. They go to work at Asda. Or at Sainsbury’s. Or at Tesco.
Job satisfaction is not the same, but there are worse places to work and pay and conditions have been on an upward curve lately. In addition to staff discounts, subsidized canteens and paid overtime, these places have another key perk, though there’s nothing about it in the employee handbook: you can leave work behind when you leave the premises.
Unison, the UK’s largest public sector union, says pay levels in supermarkets are now competitive with lower grades in the NHS. They are often better than the meager income from contract staff without whom hospitals would grind to a halt: doormen, cleaners, etc. Let’s not forget them. They were all among those who were applauded on pandemic Thursdays, applauded by ministers too, I might add, in what today seems like a rather disgusting display of cynicism on their part. But why push a bed when you could earn more by pushing a cart?
The union has highlighted the case of Jason, who worked in the NHS for almost five years. Low wages and job stress led him to make the reluctant decision to go to work with Asda’s home delivery team. The retailer invested in him, providing training that helped him advance to become a section leader. Having started out as a housekeeper in the NHS, she had plans to become a nurse. Now he gets paid more and has less stress. Those plans are on indefinite hold.
There will be more Jasons in the coming months. You may have noticed that Tesco just filed for a second unscheduled raise to help its workers deal with the cost-of-living crisis. Envious eyes will be cast your way from all over the public sector.
“Conservative President Jake Berry has already said that people who can’t pay their bills should cut back or get a better paying job. If key workers follow his advice, there will soon be no one left to run our hospitals, schools and nursing homes,” says Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary. “The backlog of orders will not start to slow down, nor will waiting times and backlogs slow down unless the NHS can keep experienced staff.”
I’ve talked to McAnea. Characterizing her as a “militant”, a monster under the bed to scare Tory children when they don’t go to sleep, is as reductive as it is stupid.
To stay up to date with the latest views and comments, sign up for our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by by clicking here
She is not an ideologue; she is more of a woman who came the hard way and has a fierce commitment to her members because she once lived the life they lead. She helps explain why she is so popular with them. Faced with the desperate attacks of the Prime Minister, she wears a Teflon jacket. It is Truss who is the monster here.
McAnea and his strikers are not the people we, and the members of this miserable administration who still possess some political savvy, should be concerned about. They are the ones who leave. Every time Tesco or one of the other retail giants raises their people’s pay, and every time Truss or one of his drones intimidates and degrades public sector workers, there will be fewer strikers and more people leaving Downing Street. as they go. head to greener, higher paying pastures.
The situation in schools is not very different. All those support staff that Kemi Badenoch railed against during her leadership campaign? They too are disappearing. Badenoch, who we are told is the future of her party, proved that Truss is not the only superior Tory to possess a lake of ignorance the size of Windermere when she taunted them and threatened them with the axe. She is taking him at his word.
Tesco’s and Asda’s profits are the NHS’s losses. And the losses of our children’s schools. But it is not the CEOs of those companies who are to blame. He is the executive director of the nation and the management team of him. They are the ones who deserve the sack.