What the Trade Union movement can learn from the junior doctors’ dispute. (Part 2)

September 3, 2016 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In the first of these two articles we examined the successes of the junior doctors strike and how they were brought about. In this concluding part we examine what didn’t work so well, look at what has changed over the past year, and look towards what we might do in the future.

I have talked quite a lot about the positives that have developed during this dispute. However it would be remiss to not reflect upon some things that we didn’t get right and need to work on. Firstly, some of our merchandising was poorly thought through. For one of the days of action, we were sent thousands of stickers saying “I’m a junior doctor”. These were clearly useful for the couple of hundred people on the picket, but entirely useless for handing out to the general public who were not junior doctors. Another thing that we need to work on is how we conduct ourselves when on the picket. As strike work is very new to us, there were many people who didn’t feel confident going out and engaging the public in conversation and giving out leaflets and stickers. They therefore held back somewhat and remained on the picket talking to friends. If we do take further strike action it would be beneficial to focus on this area of our campaigning to strengthen our ability to get our message across.

After looking at the strengths of the campaign, the contributing factors in developing those strengths and also the areas for improvement, it is important to look at what has changed over the past year, and what we can do in the future.

The major change over the past year has been a massive radicalisation of junior doctors. A year or so ago, any mention of the idea that the fundamental problem isn’t this conservative government, but conservatism in general, was instantly met with wails of condemnation and accusations of trying to bring politics into the contract dispute.

However, now one can openly and explicitly discuss a class based analysis of the dispute: that conservative governments will ALWAYS want to attack the NHS and our terms and conditions because that is in the interest of the class that they represent. Obviously, not every junior doctor would agree with such an analysis, but the debate’s terms of reference have shifted to such a degree that it is perfectly acceptable to express an explicitly Marxist analysis. Also, at BMA congress this year there was a motion calling for TUC affiliation. This fell, as we knew it would, but it was a victory to get it on the agenda. There was also a motion calling for a march to defend the NHS in partnership with the TUC and other health unions. This also unfortunately fell, but the vast majority of junior doctors voted in favour of this motion, indicating where we are as a group.

We must now look to the future. To the great disappointment of many, and the surprise of some, Jeremy Hunt has kept his job as Secretary of State for Health. I was personally surprised as this would have been an easy way for the new government to make the dispute go away, without losing face, to enable them to focus on the battles they feel are most important. Many people share the analysis that the government are attempting to break the terms and conditions of NHS staff as a prelude to privatisation. In addition, many agree that they were attacking the junior doctors first as this would be a much easier battle than the later ones against the nurses and the consultants. However, we have proven that we are not an easy group to overcome and have given the Department of Health quite a battle. It was therefore expected that Hunt would be reshuffled and the new Secretary of State would announce complete support for what Hunt was trying to achieve, but a desire to assess the way forward themselves. They would therefore pause while they familiarised themselves with the important issues.

This would have ended the dispute, made the junior doctors go away and made the government look statesmanlike. However, the new administration has chosen NOT to take this approach and have left Hunt in post. This suggests that, in contrast to the teachers who have got rid of yet another Education Secretary in the shape of Nicky Morgan, the May administration feels that this battle with NHS staff IS one of the very important battles that they need to win. We should bear this in mind when the movement is planning how we fight back because, if they think it is vital for them to win, we should consider that it is vital that they DON’T win. The dispute suggested that the general public will support strike action by public sector workers when it is obvious that the action is being taken in the interest of the public or the service. I would argue that the general public are very dissatisfied with the government at the moment and so would support almost anyone who is seen to be taking them on. During the strike, it was frequently suggested by our opponents that we had been infiltrated by the radical left and that our aim was to bring down the government. Although some members of the union would be in favour of such an idea, it very much was not the aim of the dispute. However, when we talked to members of the public walking past the picket lines, the overwhelming sentiment was that we were doing the right thing and that we should be doing all we could to bring down the government.

As mentioned before, we recently decided not to affiliate to the TUC at a national level. However, I would strongly encourage all local BMA organisations to send delegates as observers to their local trade councils to build strong links between the BMA and the rest of the trade union family. Within healthcare there also exists Joint Staff Consultative Committees to negotiate on a local level with management on behalf of all health workers. I have been informed that the BMA is invariably allocated seats on these committees but rarely take up the seats. Joining these committees is also something that we should strongly be advocating.

Although junior doctors are radicalising, we are generally starting from quite a low level and so progressive politics and campaigning is new to a very large number of junior doctors. Therefore, we need to take baby steps to facilitate local BMA members working with those who share a common cause. In Bristol and Swindon we encountered this problem when the Swindon Branch of the People’s Assembly against Austerity approached the people leading the junior doctors’ strike locally. However they were rebuffed on the basis that “Who are the People’s Assembly? We don’t know you. How do we know that you aren’t some radical extreme left group who will try and manipulate us?”. Conversely, in Bristol there are very good links between junior doctors and the local People’s Assembly group. As a way to deal with this issue, they are considering effectively holding four-way talks with both groups of junior doctors and both People’s Assembly groups. In this way people can get to know and trust each other in a safe and facilitated environment. This is something that we should be considering in other areas as well.

Junior doctors are immensely grateful and touched by the support and solidarity that has been given to us by the whole trade union movement. It has given us strength to know that you are standing alongside us. We know that many other unions will likely be facing attacks over the coming months. We therefore will be aiding and supporting other unions in whatever way we can, on the picket lines and publicly expressing solidarity.

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This post was written by Thabo Miller

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