Yesterday junior doctors in England announced another strike against the new contract the government is seeking to introduce. This new strike was scheduled to begin on 12th September and would last for five days. The logic behind the strike is that this will be a more powerful message to the government because NHS trusts will have less time to prepare mitigation strategies than the strike in March. Furthermore the strike would last for the whole working week and therefore the disruption will be greater. Evidently the government didn’t get the message because this afternoon the BMA announced additional five-day strikes in October, November, and December.
History shows that the technique of the Tories in industrial disputes is simple: war by attrition. The Tories are banking on the fact that if the contract is imposed upon junior doctors prolonged strike action will starve these workers of wages and the financial pressure will force them back to work. During the 1984-85 Miners Strike those on strike went without pay for a number of months, until the strain was too much to cope. I believe that this is the what the Tories are doing now. They are allowing doctors to deprive themselves of wages until they eventually buckle.
The other dimension is about the legitimacy of strikes. Once again those on the Right have sought to deride the democratic decision of the junior doctors by arguing that the strike threshold wasn’t high enough and that doctors shouldn’t be allowed to go on strike.
On the first point, the strike won 58% of the vote. The argument put forward by some right-wing members of the media has been that this is less than 50% of the total membership and therefore this is unjustified. I can’t find the news story from these same people when the Tories won their first majority government in over 20 years declaring the result illegitimate. I wonder why. Incidentally, this particular member of the commentariat talked about how the ‘decent’ doctors who weren’t going on strike had their union encouraging them to go on strike. This clearly shows ignorance of trade union practice because people go on strike by choice. If the union you are a member votes for industrial action, it doesn’t compel all its members to join them.
The second point is more nuanced, but should be discussed. The argument against doctors on strike is reasonable: the job of doctors is to heal the sick and help people, and going on strike can harm people. This isn’t untrue, strike action always causes problems for some people but there are two things to consider. The first is that doctors themselves are not Trotskyist agitators that want to use this as an attempt to bring in full communism, as much as I would like that. Junior doctors are normal people who feel that the new contract erodes their working conditions and puts patient safety at risk. The second thing to consider is about what I just mentioned- patient safety. If you are a doctor and believe that this contract will stretch resources too thinly and harm patient safety everyday for the duration of the contract, which is a number of years, of course short term disruption can be rationalised especially if it eventually defeats the government.
Prolonged industrial action will turn some members of the public against the unions, but I would argue that those easily swayed against doctors who are forced to go on strike were not exactly friends of the labour movement to begin with. Working people need to resist this Tory government as much as possible, but the NHS must be a red line. No government, Labour or Conservative, must be allowed to make the lives of doctors more difficult. These people are the backbone of our greatest national institution, and any erosion of their living standards should be treated as personal slight to all members of the trade union movement.
This dispute will be looked back on as an historic industrial dispute. In the 1980s it was miners and in the 2010s it is doctors. The strikes that the doctors shall undergo are being framed as reckless and unjustified but the Tories are banking on good people yielding to an injustice and for the public to turn against them. The print media is already decrying those on strike as rabble-rousers so let’s stand with our doctors in their time of need. The wider public needs to remain strong and support the junior doctors, if not for them but for patients and for our NHS.