British doctors have gone on strike today for the first time since 1975 over the government cuts to pensions. Unsurprisingly, this has been met with a chorus of indignation by the Tories who have accused the doctors of “penalising patients” by taking industrial action.
8 in 10 doctors voting in the ballot of BMA (British Medical Association – the doctors’ trade union) members chose industrial action. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the strike has been partial, despite the overwhelming yes vote to strike action.
As is always the case in the caring and emergency professions, the ruling class uses the media at its disposal to emotionally blackmail those workers who are directly responsible for caring for the elderly, infirm and vulnerable. They prey on the natural instincts of the doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, etc, for the individual concerns of their patients.
The Tories see this as the natural weak-point in the Doctors’ armoury and are determined to fully exploit it. And the results are not surprising.
“Non-emergency healthcare only” was the concern of the BMA leadership. In Barnsley Hospital the director of human resources, Hilary Brearley, told the BBC that less than half of the doctors went out on strike. Just 29 out of 225 GP surgeries in Southampton are reportedly closed, 24 out of 148 in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. Reports from the Royal University Hospital in Liverpool described the impact to hospitals as “minimal”.
Understandably, with the last strike having taken place in 1975, the Doctors are not as “well rehearsed” as other sectors for industrial action. Yet the fact that the Tory austerity measures have even aroused the indignation of the doctors - a relatively privileged section of the working class - shows how deep and thorough-going the cuts are. And this first, tentative response is from what has been traditionally considered a “non-strike union”, more akin to an employers association, than an actual trade union with the power to call strike action.
Today is the just tip of the iceberg. Only 10% of Chancellor George Osborne’s cuts having been implemented. N A Butt, from Glasgow, said on the BBC website:
“I'm a doctor with six years graduate degree and eight years postgraduate experience, two specialisations and I earn 18 quid an hour! What makes them think that they can cut over 14% in pensions? And will anybody feel it safe that I operate upon human lives when I'm 68! This what new changes mean!”
The last time doctors took strike action it was against a Labour government attempting to curb private practice by NHS doctors. The doctors operated a work-to-rule policy (strict observance of contracted hours, no overtime) for four whole months, until the government finally settled. Later in the year junior doctors took industrial action against attacks by the government on pay and conditions. Just the threat of action brought the government to the negotiating table and an agreement was achieved.
This time the government is tearing up the agreement over pensions reached in 2008, and is asking for an increase in contributions from doctors above the public-sector average and an increase in the pension age, meaning doctors will have to retire at 68.
The arguments that the Tory press make are nothing new and have been heard throughout the public sector:
1. People are living too long and claiming too much from the pensions pot. If only people would be more obliging, and die relatively quickly once they have stopped working, then there would be more than enough pension money to go around.
2. Divide and rule. The Tories seek to divide working people by fudging any questions on the causes of the huge public debt, which they take for granted. They talk in terms of “the nation” having spent a little too much, as if it was a household budget, talking about workers and bosses as in the same breath as equally liable for the crisis. Therefore the “household” will need to make sacrifices: the public sector workers must accept the same pay and conditions as the private sector workers. Even if we accept that the answer is a “race to the bottom”, which we do not, the doctors are being asked to pay an over the average increase in pensions contributions compared with other public sector workers.
3. The doctors are taking out their frustration on the patients! The Tories shed crocodile tears for the sick and elderly who will lose out if the doctors are forced to take strike action. The logic of this argument is that workers in the professions which are involved in the emergency services can never take action but must accept what the bosses offer them because if they do not, they risk endangering lives.
The argument that must be made in opposition to the slander thrown at all workers is that the planned 25% cuts to the public sector across the board are what really endanger lives.
We only have to look at Greece today, where hospitals are being closed down and medical supplies are not making their way into the hospitals that remain open. The cuts to the public sector are not being carried out by the doctors but by the Greek and European bourgeoisie who are not concerned with the human cost, only the health of the capitalist system.
In fact, it is the heroic Greek health workers like the ones in Kilkis, near Thessalonica, who have the patients’ interests at heart, regardless of whether they are being paid. They have taken over their hospital despite the austerity and are keeping it running in order that the public have somewhere to go. But such a situation cannot last indefinitely. Over-stretched, under-paid and exhausted doctors with diminished resources and a skeleton support staff will only undermine the ability of any doctor or nurse, no matter how dedicated, to care for their patients.
Health Minister Andrew Lansley, according to the BMA website, told NHS managers that “...if doctors’ contribution rates were left unchanged, nurses earning £30,000 a year would see their take-home pay fall by £100 per month to cover the shortfall.” The Tories hold the gun to other health-sector workers and ask the doctors to come quietly, without a fight.
It is also a lie that pensions have become less affordable. Since 2000 contributions to public sector pensions has increased by 56%, faster than the increase in payments (38%). The only reason that the existing pension pot looks strained is because it has been used to help bail-out the banks.
This destroys the myth of there being “too many old people” for decent pensions. Productivity in the last century has completely outstripped the increase in that part of the population that draws a pension. Erik Rauch of the Michigan Institute of Technology, looking at the statistics in the USA, shows that the average productivity of labour has increased 400% since 1950:
“An average worker needs to work a mere 11 hours per week to produce as much as one working 40 hours per week in 1950... And, if the productivity measures have any meaning, the average worker could have a 29-hour workweek if he were satisfied with producing as much as a 40-hour worker as recently as 1990.”
The question of pensions is not an exclusively British problem, but is under attack throughout the capitalist world. And the trends are the same when it comes to productivity. Broadly speaking the increase in productivity in Britain in the same period has been the same. The increase in the number of pensioners in Britain from 1949 to today has gone from 4 to 10.5 million, a rise of 250%, far behind the increase in productivity.
The only reason why the a working population that can produce 4 times the amount of value cannot sustain a pension population only 2.5 times larger is because, on the one hand, the inability for capitalism to utilise that productivity and make at the same time make a worthwhile profit, i.e. the problem of overproduction, a shrinking market and unemployment; and on the other hand the huge public debt that has been created to sustain the banks that the Tories represent. In other words the attack on pensions has nothing to do with an ageing population and everything to do with making working people pick up the bill for the crisis of capitalism.
The myth of “gold-plated” pensions is being used against all sections of the working class to pit worker against worker. It is the argument of those who see need no alternative to austerity. Sections of the workforce who may have considered themselves privileged in the past, such as the doctors and the police, are receiving a rude awakening in the light of a crisis that is far from over, but has only just begun.
The action of the doctors is part of the overall process of radicalisation that is taking place throughout the working class. More and more, workers everywhere are drawing the conclusion that in order to defend the conditions of the past, a fight must be waged. Ultimately this is intolerable to the bosses, who will not pay for the crisis but attempt to sweat it out of the brows of ordinary workers. Therefore the question of who runs society must be posed.
The British Medical Association needs to make this case, and link up with other public sector trade unions whose members are undergoing the same attacks, to make their action effective.