By Charlie Kimber
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Nurses vote for strikes—but are blocked by Tory anti-union laws

Unofficial action would be the best response to attacks on the right to strike
Issue 2861
RCN nurses on the picket line at St Thomas hospital in London holding RCN union and homemade placards

RCN union nurses on the picket line in May at St Thomas’ hospital in central London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The RCN nurses’ union strike ballot result, announced on Tuesday, showed overwhelming support for more strikes. Over 84 percent of those who voted backed further walkouts.

But the union leaders won’t be calling more strikes because the turnout, 43 percent, missed the 50 percent threshold laid down by the anti-union laws.

RCN activist Harry Eccles said, “Unfortunately the national threshold was not met for further strikes. But remember, over 100,000 nurses in England voted to go on strike. This is a shocking indictment of the poor state of the NHS and the morale of nurses. This government should be ashamed.”

The anti-union, pro-boss laws are soon to be made even more restrictive. This week they have put obstacles in the way of the pay revolt, and they serve both the government and those union leaders who gain an alibi not to fight. 

Junior doctor Andrew Meyerson pointed out, “This RCN ballot would have firmly passed had it not been for the 2016 Trade Union Act that assaulted our right to strike. It’s a dirty, dirty victory for this corrupt government that will only prove to hurt patients.”

The result does not mean that nurses have stopped being angry over pay. They have recently had the latest offer—5 percent plus a one-off lump sum—imposed and many are outraged by how little it is and how much disappears in tax and national insurance.

But nurses have been fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. From the beginning of strikes last December the union had a limited strategy and didn’t call out together all those who had backed action. RCN general secretary Pat Cullen ruled out joint strikes with others such as the junior doctors.

Later RCN leaders hoped to ram through an agreement to the rotten offer and recommended it in a ballot. It took a rank and file revolt to chuck it out.

The RCN’s first ballot last year was “disaggregated”—counted trust by trust. Some 176 hospital trusts could strike even when the overall figure didn’t hit 50 percent. This time it was an “aggregated” ballot, counted as a single vote nationally.

It’s not hard to think that the union leaders saw this “all or nothing” shift as a chance to end the action without being seen to sell out.

And the decision by other NHS unions—in particular the largest one, Unison—to accept the pay offer also made RCN members’ task more difficult.

Annette, a London RCN member, told Socialist Worker, “I am really disappointed by the result, but not really surprised, it didn’t feel like there was a real push from the top to win the vote and set out a realistic way to win.

“And when Pat Cullen talked in May about striking until Christmas that didn’t lift people. It just sounded like we could never win.”

Some RCN activists are now calling for a reballot, particularly where the local vote hit the 50 percent threshold.

The most important task now is to strengthen the networks of those who so effectively campaigned to defeat the union leaders and reject the offer earlier. The NHS Workers Say No group which did such important work must not wither.

In a statement on Wednesday, NHS Workers Say No said, “Our task must now be to continue to organise in our workplaces, stay united as an NHS workforce of all grades and disciplines and come back ready to fight harder than ever for the next pay round.

“We will continue to build solidarity across unions and push for a joint pay claim for 2024-5. We urge the unions to coordinate their fight for staff and patients and to fight for a fully funded, publicly owned NHS.

“We stand by our junior Doctors and consultants and all workers taking strike action, solidarity!”

One place to come together for wider discussion around these issues is the Workers’ Summit on 23 September in London.

In better news, senior doctors (consultants) in the BMA members have voted overwhelmingly for strikes with an 86 percent vote for action on a 71 percent turnout. They have scheduled a 48-hour strike from 20 July.

And however bruised nurses are feeling now. They should prepare for solidarity with the five-day junior doctors’ strikes from 13 July.

The best response to the Tory laws would be unofficial action by other nurses and other NHS workers alongside those strikes.

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