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As I was saying, healthcare staff went on strike today, and in case I hadn’t been clear, I strongly support their actions and their goals.

I left off somewhere around here a few days ago: In a poll of RCM members, 94% of respondents supported, if not a strike, then taking some form of industrial action regarding their forthcoming real-terms pay-cut. I was a little perturbed by the remaining 6%. In a room full of 16 midwives, statistically one of them thinks they should all keep working without being paid, because to do otherwise would be to cause an unnecessary fuss over the steady decline in remuneration for the work they do get paid for.

This highlights the odd role which “work to rule” plays in the lives of many public sector workers. That continuing to do the job agreed with your employer, and going no further beyond what you’re being compensated for, can constitute a form of protest, is itself slightly bewildering, and notably one-sided. If my bosses regularly paid me to take extra-long lunch-breaks, and only withdrew this privilege when they wanted something from me, then… well, then I don’t know what. But it’d be weird. Though maybe I’d be a bit less down on this whole capitalism thing.

(Maybe I’ve figured out why the Guardian didn’t want to commission me to write about this. Actual journalists need to be able to finish a sentence. Also they’ve kinda got it covered.)

When a serious objection to working conditions needs to be raised, however, it may eventually come time to down-forceps entirely, which might get a little more attention. Even then, they’ll do their best to make sure that nobody will suffer serious harm from want of their services, but whatever measure they take, the backlash is inevitable from certain quarters, castigating and condemning them for the arrogance with which they put the public at risk for their own gain.

Some of our general national wariness over public sector strikes is reasonable and worth considering, notwithstanding the extent to which it’s drummed up and over-hyped by certain self-interested tabloids – and bearing in mind that a stronger majority of everyday folk support the 1% pay rise in contention than have provided a mandate for any government in the last I’d have to do some actual research to find out how many years. Healthcare workers have a unique power over us when we’re at our most vulnerable and in need of help; if they chose to wield this power irresponsibly or selfishly, we could all find ourselves held to ransom by a surgeon who charges extra to sew us back up again, or hostage to a paramedic whose defibrillator doesn’t seem to be working right now but might just power back up and be able to get granddad’s heart beating again with the right amount of “persuasion”.

But although this is theoretically conceivable, back in the real world a far more likely danger of social blackmail is faced by healthcare workers themselves, who are expected by many to continue working constantly and tirelessly, regardless of the conditions of their remuneration, with threats of being held responsible for whatever happens to those who need their services in their absence, if they ever dare let up their efforts for a moment. (I saw someone on Twitter earlier ask what would happen to “the lives that would have been in the hands” of a particular nurse who was on the picket lines today if she’d been working. That’s not the half of it – I hear some of them forego work to sleep and have social lives too, you know. The nerve of it! People could be dying!)

Of course, implicit in any complaints about the terrible peril that we all face if NHS staff stop doing their jobs, even for a few hours with several weeks’ notice, is the acknowledgment that the jobs they’re doing are pretty fucking important – and often urgent and extremely time-sensitive. In certain paranoid fantasies, this means we could all fall foul of the above-imagined surgeon hostage-taker at any moment; in practice, the end result of this aspect of the job is all that unpaid overtime I was so bewildered by earlier.

If you’ve reached the end of your thirteen-hour shift and your colleague who’s supposed to be taking over hasn’t turned up to relieve you, working to rule would imply that you sod off regardless once it’s time for you to clock out, potentially leaving whoever you were caring for without anyone actively attending to them (or dumping responsibility for their care on someone else who’s around but who already has an overflowing case-load of their own). So what often happens is that you just have to keep working, beyond the time you’re getting paid for, and well beyond the point at which my knees would’ve buckled and brought on my third emotional breakdown of the night.

The same thing that makes it hard for them to take industrial action without risking harm to innocent bystanders, also makes it clear why industrial action is such an important option when they go so unappreciated. And yes, I mean they should be appreciated with money. If you expect someone to save your life, and deal with drunk idiots turning up in A&E night after night, and not complain when they’re regularly demonised for objecting to their pay being cut again, and to love what they do so much that they’re not even doing it for the money anyway, then I think not making it even harder for them to get by while they earn a salary in the stratospheric levels of slightly above the country’s median income is the least you can fucking do.

Be glad that nurses and midwives aren’t full-on going Galt. We’d miss them more than if every CEO in the country fucked off to join their money in the Caymans.

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