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The big question: How do unions help in healthcare science?

This month we ask "How do unions help in healthcare science?"

Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe
National Officer – Health
Unite the Union

In the ever-shifting sands of the NHS, there needs to be constructive engagement with trade union and healthcare science leaders to ensure the charge towards hub-and-spoke models of service delivery are benefiting patients, and that the scientific workforce reaches its full potential.

Too often workforce issues are an afterthought in these projects. Centralisation is an opportunity, but also a threat – some believe that pathology networks in England could see a 30% reduction in workforce.  

For any change to be successful, the workforce need to buy into the change and be actively engaged. Trade unions are the premier agents in staff engagement – since through our experience and network of workplace representatives, who have expertise of the clinical and staffing issues – engagement means addressing the issues that concern staff.  

Academics have shown that better staff engagement leads to better patient care, but to achieve this, trade unions need to be involved in workforce issues early on; when the ideas are only formative. Workforce plans regarding tendering processes should be produced in partnership with local trade union representatives and communication on both sides should be open and transparent. Trade unions, as the employees’ voice, are a prerequisite for high-quality healthcare science service in the NHS, which will lead to better outcomes for patients.


Donna Torrance
Training Manager Blood Sciences
North West London Pathology

When I started working for the NHS, individuals doing the same job at different hospitals could have different salaries and annual leave, spine points could be negotiated and, each year, unions at each hospital would negotiate pay increases for individual groups of staff.  

The most radical overhaul of the NHS pay structure was Agenda for Change (AfC) and this was driven by unions and the demand for equal pay for equal work. Whether you agree or not with the final implementation, AfC standardised pay structure, career progression and terms and conditions of all NHS staff, and created a system that attempted to provide equal pay for equal work.

All of the working conditions we have, including equality in the workplace, working time directive and flexible working, are in place because of union involvement. Unions have representation at national, regional and local level and this allows staff concerns to be addressed and negotiations to be conducted at all levels. These negotiations may not always feel like NHS staff have received the best deal, however, I fear without unions the conditions would be worse.

Unions help in healthcare as they protect working conditions, raise public awareness of issues relevant to the NHS, allow a national voice and negotiating power to the staff and help maintain quality of patient care by supporting staff to raise concerns over service provision, health and safety and quality issues. But a union is only as strong as its members.



Joanna Andrew
Laboratory Medicine Manager (designate)
York and Scarborough Hospital

I have been a member of a union since starting in the profession back in 1993. I was simply handed a form – there was no discussion or explanation, it was just assumed that everyone would join. I didn’t really know what it meant, or how it would benefit me as an individual.

As my career has developed, I have been involved with unions for many reasons, not all positive, but, overall, my response is: “Yes, unions do help and they are a vital support for the workforce.”

The current process of consolidating pathology services is leading to workforce changes, challenges and uncertainty. The unions are able to ensure negotiations are fair and members feel supported.

The reduction in cytology laboratories due to the centralisation of screening services with the introduction of human papillomavirus (HPV) screening led to 14 members of staff at my trust being made redundant. This was the first time, as a manager, I had faced dealing with the devastating impact of job losses. I really valued the support from the union during the redundancy consultations.

The union representative was vital in ensuring that staff understood the process. Their expertise and understanding of processes, such as the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006, known colloquially as TUPE, and their knowledge of NHS terms and conditions under AfC were invaluable in being able to negotiate the best possible outcome for all the staff in very difficult and sad circumstances.

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