NHS staff are right to go on strike

Increasingly, working for the NHS is an invitation to poverty. Over a third of NHS staff are paid less than £21,000 a year. Sixty-per-cent will not get a pay rise at all this year. In real terms, they've suffered pay cuts for five years.

In that time, the UK's 1,000 richest people doubled their wealth. They're now worth £519 billion, equivalent to a third of the nation's annual gross domestic product.

NHS workers are on strike for four hours today, as the start of an industrial action which will last into January. It's worth looking closely at what that long-term industrial action involves. It is not really industrial action at all. It is workers only doing the amount of work they are paid to do – no unpaid overtime.

The NHS survives on goodwill. Staff give up their lunch breaks. They go over and above their contracted hours to care for patients. This is what keeps the health service ticking over. What we will experience over the next few weeks is an NHS without that staff goodwill.

They have been forced to restrict their goodwill because management has refused to show any to them. This year, the Department of Health (DoH) ignored the independent pay review board's recommendations for the first time. They had called for a one per cent pay rise across the board. The DoH said it would only give that out to people already at the top of their pay grade. Everyone else would be getting nothing.

It constructed this argument by pretending that those staff on the NHS' 'Agenda for Change' pay scale were already receiving a pay rise by their journey up the 12 incremental pay bands. This is nonsense. The bands are a chart of career progression, not a pay rise. Pretending that a salary control measure is an act of generosity is grossly misleading.

The department insists there is no money for staff, but when Andrew Lansley's disastrous free market reorganisation of the NHS took place, magic money appeared from nowhere.

The bill is currently at just over a billion pounds. It costs money to close primary care trusts and replace them with clinical commissioning groups, which can then act as a vehicle through which health services are farmed out to private firms. Even skewering the bidding process in favour of corporations rather than public providers is complex and expensive.

The money is there to privatise health services, but not to pay staff properly. And once private firms take over, salaries are of course one of the first things they squeeze.

NHS staff deserve better than to be lied to, split down the middle and forced to live on low wages, with no-one acknowledging the extra work they put in. As salaries for the already rich soar into orbit, the government twists and turns to deny the best of us even the tiniest pay increase. Small wonder there's such overwhelming public support for NHS workers.

Coalition policy on the NHS has been simple: lie, privatise, lie again. They are in no position to make any argument about how it should be run.