Solidarity with healthworkers striking in defence of their wages and conditions, not with their employer, the NHS

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A series of articles explaining that the campaign to defend the NHS is a campaign to defend the capitalist state, not the working class

On March 11 there is an ‘SOS NHS demonstration’ which claims to both “defend the NHS” and “support the strikes”. But is it possible to do both at the same time? We say “no”, firstly because of the nature of the workers’ struggles going on in Britain today, which are continuing the ‘summer of discontent’ that started 9 months ago, but also the struggles going on in France, with large demonstrations against pension reform, and more widely in Europe and the Americas. Secondly, because the National Health Service was never a reform won by the working class, but on the contrary part of the wave of nationalisations in the 1940s and 1950s that grew out of the state control of the economy for World War 2, as we show in the articles we are highlighting in this dossier.

All workers are facing the same price rises, particularly for food and fuel, often with the need to use food banks or choose between heating and eating, because they are seeing their real wages fall. This is what lies behind the strikes going on in Britain since last summer. Yet everywhere we see the struggles divided up, between different industries, between different occupations in the same industry, and between members of different unions in the same workforce, as with ambulance workers divided between Unison, Unite and GMB unions striking at different times. The idea that “This is now a fight to save the NHS itself” as Sharon Graham, Unite General Secretary said last November, or that it is “a fight not only for pay and working conditions, but also for the very survival of the NHS” (Counterfire), is another way of cutting health workers off from other workers struggling for the same things. It is not a separate fight from that of teachers, transport workers, civil servants, university workers, it is the same fight. Nurses, physiotherapists, ambulance workers, junior doctors need to fight for their pay and working conditions regardless of whether or not the state will fund the NHS sufficiently to cut waiting times for treatment or ambulances. And for that expressions of support must go beyond “plenty of honks and cheers of support could be heard from the public” (Counterfire) and become part of “a dynamic of extension of the struggle” together with all workers in struggle, as we say in our latest international leaflet.

Not everyone repeats the same false memories of “We remember when our NHS was the best healthcare system in the world” (keep our NHS public). Remember the long history of waiting lists, the dilapidated  surgeries! As the articles we are highlighting here show, the NHS was not any kind of ‘socialist’ reform won through the election of the Labour Party in 1945, but a plan arising from the WW2 coalition government with the idea of keeping workers “fit for service”, particularly military service. So it is no surprise that cost cutting and “productivity” measures have been applied to health services by Labour as well as Tory governments. So when Socialist Worker tell us “Big strikes in the NHS will get the Tories on the back foot” they play the same game of dividing up the struggle, separating out the healthworkers as a special case, and spreading the same old story that Tories attack the NHS more than Labour.

Nor is the NHS simply its employees, as pickets shouting “we are the NHS” think. Certainly, the NHS could not exist without its workers, any more than any other capitalist concern could. They are exploited by the NHS. It is true that the NHS has no shareholders, but it is part of the state that keeps workers healthy enough to be exploited by the British capitalist class as a whole, and therefore the workers in it contribute to the production of capitalist profit. We are NOT the NHS, our interests are opposed to the interests of the capitalist class and its state, of which the NHS is a part.

The NHS is not a reform for workers to defend World Revolution no.303, April 2007

 Debate on Libcom on the NHS: How do we defend the social wage? World Revolution no.304, May 2007

70 years of the NHS: Beware the capitalist state bearing gifts World Revolution no. 381, Autumn 2018

Solidarity with health workers – against their employer, the capitalist NHS World Revolution 386 - Summer 2020


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