In 2012, NHS employers in the South West formed a consortium to try and introduce regional pay and conditions. This break from nationally-agreed terms led to a brilliant and effective campaign from local NHS unions. Here, we speak to James Allen, a workplace rep for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), who was on the ground during the campaign.
Hi James – how did you first hear about the consortium?
It was a total shock. Someone leaked a document that exposed that NHS trusts in the south west had formed a ‘pay cartel’. Most terms – including pay – are nationally approved. It means we don’t have to worry about that at an individual level. Seeing this document was a massive kick in the teeth.
Do you know why they were targeting the south west?
We think because there’s a lower percentage of trade union membership here. If their plan worked, they’d roll it out across the rest of the country. But the irony is, this whole situation brought everyone together in opposition. They had their cartel going on, and we created our own group of unions.
What did that look like – the group of trade unions?
It was amazing. I remember going to those meetings – in big rooms – and they were absolutely rammed. Every NHS organisation from the whole south west was represented, together with all our full-time officers, from every trade union. It became a really positive thing – we were all working together on this.
What did the campaign involve?
We did a lot of local campaigning, and kept on and on at our organisations. We had petitions and media coverage. At the time, I was a workplace rep and a regional rep for the CSP. That meant I could connect to the people affected, while also getting national support from my union.
The event I remember best was a rally in Bristol. It was cold, and I was worried there wouldn’t be many people, but two and half thousand turned up! The atmosphere was brilliant. I took my family and my children are little activists now – they want to go on rallies the whole time!
Why do you think people were so against the consortium?
I think it was the idea that these ‘decision-makers’ – who aren’t clinical, who aren’t treating patients every day – were sitting in an office somewhere deciding how we on the front-line should be treated. It was just so unfair, that they would treat us worse just because of where we lived.
And you won, right?
Yes. It wasn’t long after the rally that the pay cartel fell apart – quite quickly. I think one organisation said, “It’s not going to work, it’s really annoying all the staff, we’re pulling out”. And then it was like a house of cards collapsing.
It’s kind of funny how something very negative – really detrimental to staff – became so positive. The campaign really strengthened the trade union movement in the south west, so hopefully we won’t be picked on again!