On Monday 24 November midwives and health workers across the UK were on strike again, following the Royal College of Midwives’ (RCM) first ever strike last month. Monday’s strike – called by RCM, UNISON and eight other unions – is being followed by further a six day work-to-rule action.
The government is continuing to ignore demands for a 1% rise for all midwives (inflation is 1.3%, so it is actually a pay cut). In real terms their pay has fallen by 15% over the last six years. The current pay dispute is in the context of anger about the future of the NHS, the culture of fear in the NHS, the pressures on midwives’ practice, and on the battle over birth itself. Here are seven reasons we’re all affected.
1. We are fighting for the NHS.
The NHS came out of an appeasement of the working class in the post-war settlements. As it has eroded we now see competing contractor agencies playing workers’ conditions off against each other.
Running the NHS for profit and outsourcing bits to private companies will increase if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) succeeds in making profit the god above all things, enshrined in law.
Therefore, workers across the NHS fighting together for our working conditions is a vital part of the ongoing fight for a decent health service – free and equal for all.
2. Despite calling the strike, the unions are not as supportive as they appear.
The unions didn’t ballot members in Scotland over the same issues. In Wales, despite a ballot calling for strike action on 10 November, UNISON called it off at the last minute. Despite clear intentions of the pay freeze (real-terms pay cut) by the government over the last four years, nothing was done until now. UNISON, GMB and Unite called off planned strikes in October that would have seen health workers picketing on the same day as local government and school workers – which would have strengthened both their struggles. Very little, very late…
3. It makes visible the affective labour that carers, usually women, do.
Midwifery is often referred to as a ‘calling’, a ‘privilege’ and ‘the best job in the world’. Midwives, nurses, child-carers and other care workers are often drawn to these jobs because they actually do care, but it is getting harder to do.
The exhaustion, the fear of disciplinary action or litigation, and the gap between how we want to practise and how we have to, makes the job almost unbearable for some, and forces others to develop a hard shell to deal with it. We know this affects not only ourselves, but also the women we care for. We don’t give our best to women when the wards are understaffed with little time for excellent holistic care – no matter how much extra we give of ourselves.
This strike is for recognition of the work we do, but also for the provision of decent care. The two demands are bound up together. Midwives’ working conditions are women’s birthing conditions.
4. It values what carers, usually women, do.
We live in a capitalist world where money is the universal equivalent by which we are valued. We want a world were this is not so – but in the meantime, doing the work and not getting the ‘value’ owed to us makes us angry. One of the biggest scams ever pulled was the myth of the woman as the natural carer whose work is merely an activity of love, which therefore does not need to be counted and remunerated.
This myth of women being ‘natural’ carers is used as a weapon against us when we demand decent pay and decent working conditions. “How can you complain? Surely you do it for love and the pay is an extra.” Women are supposed to embody the role of midwife or carer, and are expected do it for free (and we often do).
This is true for women caring for children or relatives in the home, and for all the extra affective labour we do in our paid work. As the cuts bite down on paid time for care, women inevitably pick up that slack.
Ever since there has been a feminist movement there has been a resistance to that unpaid women’s work – be it at home or in the workplace. This strike is a clear call that if you want us to do the work, you have to pay us in money. Our work is not for free!
5. ‘Key workers’ can’t afford a decent standard of living anymore.
Thanks to the likes Westbrook (in the case of the New Era estate) and Berkeley Homes (Woodberry Down estate) the average rent for a three bedroom flat in London is now about £2000 a month. A band-six midwife in London earns between £2400 and £3000 a month. So that leaves between £400 and £1000 for everything else for herself and her family. The sums simply don’t add up.
6. We need struggle to turn our knowledge of inequality into something that works for us.
We all know that the system isn’t working for us, but also that the tradition of struggle – the culture of confidence and solidarity – has been broken. Short term contracts and anti-union laws have unfortunately been fairly effective. We are constantly waiting for this new wave of struggle to really take off, and now we are starting to see it: this strike; care workers in Rochdale and Glasgow, which ended in a qualified victory; and the care workers in Doncaster who won their pay demands after a 90 day strike!
Everybody likes midwives and ambulance workers. Everyone has been touched by a midwife’s hands at the moment of their birth. Everyone knows someone whose life has been saved by a health care worker. Standing side by side with them in struggle makes changing the world feel just a little more possible.
7. Communism requires both struggle and midwives.
Industrial capitalism has spread its tentacles into all aspects of human life. And in all aspects of human life you see the tendency to communism: love, compassion, the reclamation of community. Hospital birth is a microcosm of this.
At its worst it is a birth factory with over-intervention and control over women’s bodies, with a focus on fitting all births into the same model and freeing up hospital beds for the next woman. At its best it is compassionate and skilled midwives attending women to birth their babies naturally and according to their own body’s rhythm. Sometimes both these things can exist in the room at the same time, and the tension between the two is the source of anger and frustration within midwife circles.
Midwives are also engaged in a struggle to protect the areas of midwifery still not completely consumed by the medical model, such as preserving the skills of home births, breach births, drug-free deliveries and breastfeeding. This is the struggle to defend women’s rights over their births. These are all fights for both midwives and women.
Midwives are often the defenders against the barrage of medicalisation, industrialisation, mistrust and disgust towards women’s bodies. We are always and clearly on the side of the woman. So to go forward we must struggle together with other women. And to go forward with the struggle to reclaim all our bodies and freedom to live according to our own rhythms, we have to struggle together with everyone!
‘Lady Stardust’ is an NHS student midwife and health care assistant.