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14 May 2008

BMA staff to strike

How staff at the the British Medical association, the 'trade union' for British doctors, are plannin

By Jaimie Kaffash

The stereotype of the junior doctor caring for you after her tenth cup of coffee and working into the 14th hour of a shift is happily no more, and this is in no small part thanks to the efforts over the last 20 years of the British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors. Indeed, the organisation still plays a huge role in our lives; by continually ensuring that the standard of training for UK doctors remains the highest in Europe; and the more controversially, securing contracts for GPs and consultants that have been blamed by government for using a large chunk of the extra funding given to the NHS.

But the organisation’s credibility took something of a knock this week when its own staff, themselves members of the GMB union, balloted to strike in protest at the imposition of performance related pay (PRP). Which, to add to the irony, is a concept that the BMA has successfully argued against when mooted by successive governments for the medical profession itself.

Public opinion and the moral high ground are huge weapons in any trade union’s arsenal, and even more so for a profession that has such a crucial role in maintaining the public’s health and safety. With public opinion still cold from the undoubtedly generous contract awards in the past few years, will this affect the most efficient professional body in the UK?

One staff member, who does not wish to be named, is in no doubt: “The organisation is representing doctors who do not like PRP, and we would not accept this as an organisation for our members, but they have imposed it on the staff and the staff feel so strongly about it that they are taking strike action.

“I think it is embarrassing and might make life difficult for the BMA. I suspect it will be thrown into discussion for any negotiation with government. It will be embarrassing at best and difficult at worst.”

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One of the biggest gripes that the staff have had is the management refuses to discuss their concerns. Dave Kent, the GMB official for London, says: “They have not been receptive to our concerns at all. Frankly, we wouldn’t have had to have gone to the bother of a ballot for industrial action otherwise. We’ve tried to negotiate on this issue, but the BMA management does not wish to negotiate.”

Of course, frosty relations between management and staff is a common place scenario throughout the country, but it does take on particular relevance when the principal function for that organisation is securing the best working conditions for its employees through engaging with the employers. Mr Kent says: “We have raised the fact that the BMA have rejected the concept of PRP with the management. It seems hypocrisy in the extreme for the BMA to take the stance that it does with government regarding PRP and then inflict PRP on its own employees. Quite hypocritical.”

BMA officials, the doctors themselves, are refusing to publicly discuss the matter. However, Brian Butler, director of communications, believes that the organisation’s role as a trade union does not give the dispute any particular relevance. He says: “I don’t see why it should make negotiations with the government tougher. It is an internal matter between management and staff at the BMA. I don’t see that the two matters are related at all. It does not make any difference with doctors negotiating with government.”

This is not how the staff see it, however: “How can it not backlash against the BMA? This isn’t the sort of thing they would accept for their members, yet they are imposing it on their staff.” Although the issue of staff anger over PRP itself may not be incredible, there is a sense that the BMA management is over confident in believing that it can take the dual roles of unflinching employer and guarantors of employees’ rights. Like that junior doctor of yesteryear, their internal turmoil – be it staff turning against them, or an exhausted set of limbs – may necessarily affect their ability to function.