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‘We’re not going away’ say nurses in the RCN

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Delegates to the RCN nurses’ union congress debated the way forward for pay strikes and how to beat back the Tories NHS attacks. Sophie Squire reports from the congress floor in Brighton
Issue 2856
RCN members

RCN members gather at the union’s annual congress in Brighton (Picture: RCN on Twitter)

Nurses at the RCN union congress in Brighton last week pushed for more strikes and action to win on pay and to save the NHS from collapse.

The four-day congress opened with a debate on the RCN’s Fair Pay for Nursing campaign. Delegates made clear that since they voted to reject the Tories below inflation deal, more strikes are needed to win. And as a strike reballot starts soon delegates stressed the importance of building a huge “Yes” vote. 

“We’re not going away, this is not the end of the nursing strike,” said RCN member Lindsay.

“Members spoke by rejecting the offer that was recommended,” she added. “I hope we can unite going forward to make our voices heard.”

Amy, who was forced to leave the NHS and seek higher pay at a nursing agency, told Socialist Worker, “I’ll still be fighting for every nurse I talk to, to vote yes. When I worked at Homerton hospital, in east London, we spent so much time talking to our colleagues, persuading them to vote for the strikes last time.”

She added, “People were in ­agreement that they wanted to keep on fighting. RCN members need to have those conversations again and make them even more persuasive. We need to win this next ballot.”

The membership of the RCN has been leading the way in the pay battle. For many, this is their first strike.

For decades the RCN was known for its conservatism and its leadership’s unwillingness to strike. Adam, a delegate at the conference and a nurse in Liverpool, told Socialist Worker, “I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me ten years ago, when I started nursing, that I would be standing on picket lines.

“I was gobsmacked by how many people voted to strike the first time around, and it shocked me that unions like Unison weren’t. But it’s all a reaction to members being on the absolute brink. 

“And since the strikes, there has been much greater engagement from members, including myself. I went to congress when I was still a student nurse, but this is my first time back. I have also quite recently become a rep.” 

Some 54 percent of nurses rejected the Tories’ recent below-inflation pay deal, despite the RCN ­recommending a vote to accept. 

“I really did find it disappointing that the RCN leadership said that the last deal was an acceptable one,” said Adam. “After that vote especially, I really think among members there is an increased willingness to speak up.” 

While there was some friction between the membership and union leaders, a majority of the conference said they stand with those union ­leaders against the Tories and the right wing media. 

Adam said, “Our general ­secretary, Pat Cullen, has been important, she’s won us a lot of support, especially with her TV interviews. But the union is its members, not just its leaders.”

‘We started a rebellion,’ say rank and file workers 

Around 100 activists from the RCN and other unions joined a fringe meeting following the RCN congress on Wednesday to discuss how to win in the battle over pay. The meeting entitled, Strike Together, Reballot Together, Win Together, was organised by NHS Workers Say No, Strike Map and Brighton and Hove Trades Council. 

The meeting brought together those who wanted to escalate action and coordinate strikes between unions. Antonia, an RCN member from East Sussex, told the room, “The government expected us to accept a shoddy pay deal. But instead we have started a rebellion that has sent a message. 

“Fellow trade unions are in our corner. But we need more of this, we need to stand together, and importantly we need to fight for democracy within our unions.” 

Another RCN member, Jeff agreed. He added, “Organising from the ground up works, we delivered the biggest vote in RCN history to reject the pay deal. Now we need to ensure the leadership of the RCN doesn’t back down.”

The meeting was joined by speakers from the NEU and UCU unions and a striking junior doctor from the British Medical Association (BMA). Branch chair of Brighton university branch UCU, Mark Abel, told the meeting that the only way to win is for workers to take their unions into “their own hands.” 

“Our union leader also tried to get us to accept a bad deal they previously said they would throw out. UCU members fought back, but to do that, we needed to be organised,” he said. 

Other activists argued that the RCN should set up strike committees and push for the coordinated strikes that union leaders have, in the past, talked so much about.

Debate over TUC affiliation

One of the most contested debates at RCN congress was whether the union should join the TUC union federationA resolution was put forward by members of the Liverpool branch for the RCN council to discuss affiliation. 

The conference ultimately rejected this motion, but votes were close. Delegate Mike argued that joining the TUC would mean the RCN could establish better links with other trade unions. 

The delegates that backed the resolution said that RCN reps would have access to more training if their union were part of the TUC. But other delegates said they wanted the RCN to continue to have “sovereignty”. And speakers argued money is better spent on organising not affiliation. 

Members vote to tackle racism 

Delegates almost unanimously voted to ensure steps were taken to make the RCN an anti-racist organisation. 

This comes not long after a report by barrister Bruce Carr found evidence of  “a misogynistic environment” inside the senior leadership of the RCN. He also noted that four of the five resignations from the council—the union’s primary leadership body—in the past three years were women, and three were black or Asian. Delegate Ruth told the conference, “The Carr report showed that racism is in the RCN. Now we must work to root it out in all its forms.” 

There was also a debate on whether nurses should get more training in assisting those who have suffered LGBT+ hate crimes. And several delegates voiced their concern  that there was no LGBT+ stall at congress. 

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