The prospect of the first national strike action in the NHS in Britain for nearly two decades took a step forward this week. The Royal College of Nurses (RCN) conference voted to clear the way for its members to take industrial action.
The health executive of the Unison union is already recommending a ballot of its members in clinical grades.
This is after Gordon Brown insisted that the 2.5 percent “pay rise” suggested by the nurses’ pay review body be given in two stages.
The staging means that the below inflation offer is effectively reduced to 1.9 percent.
Anger over Brown’s intervention has been increased by the decision of the Scottish executive to implement the 2.5 percent immediately.
The RCN vote is significant as it is seen as a moderate union. The RCN’s constitution prohibited industrial action until a rule change in 1995.
Last year health secretary Patricia Hewitt was booed and jeered when she spoke at the RCN conference. She left the podium without finishing her speech. She was not invited this year, and nor was any other government minister.
The pressure for action on NHS pay is likely to increase next week as the pay review body that will recommend the rates of pay for thousands of non clinical staff is due to start its deliberations.
It is anticipated that it will offer 2.5 percent to the cleaners, porters, admin and other ancillary staff – it also is expected that the government will stage their award too.
In addition to pay, there is growing anger among health workers over job losses.
The RCN reported that more than 22,300 NHS jobs have been lost in the last 18 months. Tony Blair attempted to deny the crisis, telling the BBC on Sunday that “there have only been about 300 clinical jobs lost”.
The prospect of more than a million workers in the health service taking industrial action together is the best possible way to greet the arrival of Tony Blair’s replacement as prime minister.
It is now up to union activists to ensure that an effective strategy is agreed.