Workers ‘must not be used as political pawns’

Workers ‘must not be used as political pawns’

8 January 2020

HEALTH workers campaigning for better pay and safer services must not be used as a political football, local Unison trade union members have warned.

On December 18, over 250 Unison members took part in a protest in Downpatrick, braving atrocious weather conditions to send a clear message that all NHS staff working in Northern Ireland deserve pay parity with the rest of their colleagues across the UK.

Other trade unions were represented at the recent day of industrial action outside the entrance to the Downshire Civic Centre in Downpatrick, with Unison members on the picket line from 8am until 8pm.

Local businesses including Molloy’s Fish and Chips and Crossgar’s 11a Cafe provided food for the striking staff, with all the trade unions who took part in the industrial action delighted with the overwhelming support they received from the public.

This week, Unison has reaffirmed its determination to continue its campaign for pay justice and safe staffing across the whole health and social services system.

And they are angry that all those with the power to resolve the dispute have refused to do so, despite agreeing that their cause is just.

Unison’s Down Lisburn branch officials Paul McConnell (chairman) and Marion Ritchie (secretary) say that the right of workers to pay parity and safe staffing levels cannot be dependent on the success or failure of the ongoing political talks to restore devolution.

They say that the trade union believes that a mechanism to end the current dispute already exists, echoing the view of Unison’s regional secretary, Patricia McKeown, who said the use of health workers as political leverage and the compliance of senior civil servants in that strategy is “nothing less than shameful”.

Mr McConnell and Mrs Ritchie say they hope that the current Stormont talks prove successful, warning that NHS staff must not be used as a political football during this process. 

The trade union officials are also adamant that industrial action can end “at the stroke of a pen” and argue that addressing the staffing levels issue could help reduce hospital waiting lists.

“The industrial action is not just about pay parity with our colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales,” said Mrs Ritchie. “It is also about safe staffing levels. The industrial action involves all NHS staff, not just nurses.

“There is mounting concern that NHS staff are being used as a political football to pressurise the politicians to get agreement on restoring the Assembly. It appears that we are being used as a pawn in a wider political game, but the health and care of patients should be above that.”

The RCN is planning more industrial action today and again this Friday, with Unison confirming that its members will not be working any overtime on Friday.

“Our members are the lowest paid of all in the UK,” said Mr McConnell. 

“Every time our members take part in industrial action they are losing money. But they feel very strongly about this issue and are prepared to sacrifice a day’s pay to make their point. It is important to remember that the ongoing strike is not just about pay parity, it is also about safe staffing levels.”

Mr McConnell said NHS workers have watched staff leave various aspects of the service and not be replaced which has left the provision of health and social services at “crisis point” with all services affected.

He said staff have tended to keep their heads down to deliver services, explaining that they are now saying “enough is enough”.

The Unison officials said while their members continue to go the extra mile for patients, this is impacting on their physical, emotional and psychological health.

Mrs Ritchie added: “Staff family lives are being affected and they have simply had enough, especially as they are being paid thousands of pounds less a year than their counterparts across the water.”

Mr McConnell added: “The bottom line is that the goodwill of staff has come to an end. A stroke of a pen can end this dispute and will send a clear message to NHS workers that they are valued and, significantly, equal to their colleagues across the NHS.

“The pay parity and safe staffing level issues must be addressed now.”