By Yuri Prasad and Sophie Squire
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RCN nurses’ strike sees big picket lines and solidarity

This article is over 1 years, 3 months old
It was the first ever strike staged by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Britain—with another set for Tuesday of next week
Issue 2836
A nurse holds a megaphone on the picket line during the RCN strike

A defiant picket line at Guy’s Hospital, south London, during the RCN strike on Thursday (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Tens of thousands of nurses hit the picket lines across England and Wales on Thursday in an explosive strike over NHS pay. The RCN nurses’ union plans another walkout Tuesday of next week.

The sight of so many buoyant strikers should send a shiver of fear down the Tories’ necks—and give strength to other health workers itching to take action.

Large groups of pickets and their supporters gathered at dozens of hospitals. They are determined to win more than the miserly 4 percent average pay increase the Tory government imposed on them.

St. Thomas’ Hospital is just a stone’s throw from parliament. Nurses on picket lines there described their anger at the Tories.

“Steve Barclay, the health minister, has said that the issue of nurses’ pay is not his responsibility. If it’s not his issue, then whose is it?” asked striker Matt. “I think the Tories expect nurses to work purely on goodwill alone, but goodwill can’t heat a house.”

Nurse practitioner Jacinth said she was striking to “get her voice heard.” “All of us staff are taking on extra hours, but it’s still not enough,” she said. “It’s not enough to bring waiting lists down. And even if we take on extra hours, our pay doesn’t cover what we need to live.”

“Life is getting harder and harder. Everyone is feeling stressed and low at the moment. “

Across the River Thames from St Thomas’, workers at the Royal Marsden hospital gathered for a lively picket line.

Paulina is a critical care nurse there. She told Socialist Worker that this strike is about pay, but also about a severe shortage of staff. “A lot of nurses here leave because of stress. And I can completely understand why,” she said.

“Most people wouldn’t endure the conditions we have to work under for the pay that we get. I don’t blame people for not wanting to train as nurses. Why spend half your life paying off your student debt for so little reward?”

Paulina added that what adds to the strain is the way nurses are seen by the bosses and those in charge. “We’re highly trained, but we aren’t valued,” she added.

Strikers were furious about the way they have been portrayed in the press and by politicians. Ruth also works in critical care. She said, “They say we are irresponsible and that we’ll let patients die. All of this is to try and attack our right to strike.”

Everyone Socialist Worker spoke to at the Marsden picket line said their patients supported the strikes. Almost every passing driver honked their horn while passers-by clapped as they walked past—and strikers were brought trays of cakes and coffee by supporters.

Workers chanted, “What do we want? Safe staffing. Who’s it for? You!” Nurse educator Jacob told Socialist Worker this strike needs to be part of a bigger movement.

“I think more people need to come out on strike if they can’t afford to live – especially in the health service,” he said. “Everyone should mobilise, from ambulance workers to cleaners. Everyone should strike.”

And outside London, solidarity was the order of the day too. Striking postal workers were particularly eager to show their support for the nurses. Many Royal Mail pickets held up signs to show their backing.

At Highbury hospital in Nottingham, a group of postal workers in their trademark pink CWU union tabards arrived early to help nurses set up their picket line. Union rep Daz Bulwell told Socialist Worker he was “delighted to join in” and that “we’re all in it together”.

The postal workers’ gesture was returned later when a large group of nurses marched down the road to join the Royal Mail picket line.

A bug crowd with a flag and placards at the RCN strike picket line in Nottingham

A huge RCN nurses’ union picket line at Highbury hospital in Nottingham

RCN rep Kelvin at Highbury said the strike was “going great”. “We’ve had a good turnout. It’s phenomenal,” he said, gesturing toward scores of nurses on both sides of the road. There were similar scenes at nearby City hospital, with a picket stretching around the building.

Managers at Derriford hospital in Plymouth tried to stop nurses walking out to join the strike. But dozens joined the picket lines anyway, with the support at the 8am shift change described as “huge”.

Outside the Bristol Royal Infirmary, striker Janice told Socialist Worker she was on strike to defend the NHS. “I’m here to ensure we can provide a service that’s adequate for our patients. We haven’t been able to do that in such a long time,” she said.

Selena, a nurse and Unison member at the hospital, joined the RCN’s picket line as it swelled into the hundreds. “We voted by 91 percent to strike too, but didn’t meet the threshold. I’m saying to my union leaders we should re-ballot because all of us should be out together,” she said.

Patient safety was a big theme among strikers. Speaking amid a cacophony of supportive car horns, RCN member Emma at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary told Socialist Worker, “I am striking not just for myself but for colleagues and patients.”

She said there were some areas of the hospital that have huge problems with recruitment. “There are staff that never have the full complement of safe staffing levels,” she said.

“They are exhausted, they are burnt out. And they come in and have to spend the first part of the shift showing strangers around who have filled in for the care. It’s unsafe to be doing that and it’s not fair on the staff.”

Emma is right. This strike is not only about pay. It’s a battle to ensure that the NHS has a future. That’s why ambulance workers and others plan to strike on Wednesday of next week, and again on Wednesday 28 December.

The crucial task for every socialist now is to turn the overwhelming sympathy for striking health workers into action. We need more unions to pile in behind the nurses and ambulance workers. The Christmas picket lines should be boosted by hundreds of local trade unionists bearing gifts. More strikes are the present everyone suffering under this government urgently needs.

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Strikers and supporters hold lunchtime rallies 
A crowd shot of the RCN strike rally at St Thomas' hospital in London, a nurse in the foreground holds a raised fist

Strikers and supporters at the rally outside St Thomas’ hospital (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Striking nurses and their trade union supporters followed up early morning picket lines with lunchtime rallies.

At St Thomas’ in central London, around 300 mostly women workers gathered to cheer on speakers and clap for those that had walked out.

Among the throng of RCN nurses’ union placards, there were banners for the GMB, Aslef and RMT unions. They were joined by a handful of left wing Labour MPs—Keir Starmer having again banned any shadow minister from attending picket lines.

Nurses were singing, chanting and dancing, including some who had come off the nightshift at 8am and stayed until lunchtime to join in.

There was an excited mood, with many clearly overjoyed at being on the front foot for the first time in years. That feeling was boosted by the support they won.

Janet Maiden, a nurse and Unison union rep from the nearby UCH hospital, said she hoped her colleagues would soon be part of the action too. 

“Liverpool dockers went out on strike and won a big pay rise. Today, those dockers are on picket lines with nurses in Merseyside,” she told the rally to applause. “It’s a sign that united action, and coordinated action can win.”

A London ambulance worker in the GMB union also won cheers. She told the audience, “We have had enough. All of us that work in the NHS need to fight for it, or there’ll be no NHS left to fight for.

“We all have to stand together. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that we can beat this rotten government, but that we need to fight to do it.”

Unity between striking nurses and postal workers was the theme of the afternoon in many places. In Brighton, around 100 Royal Mail strikers marched from their picket line to the Royal Sussex hospital. There they heard speakers from the Unison, Unite, RCN, UCU, NEU unions while poet Atilla the Stockbroker heralded the resistance with his rhymes.

In Oxford, a large delegation of post strikers from the CWU union’s South Central Postal branch brought their banner to a lunchtime rally. In Chesterfield, north Derbyshire, around 50 also gathered. While in York and in Swansea dozens took part in solidarity protests.

As the rallies took place, Tory politicians were on the radio claiming that health workers who were not part of the action opposed the strikes. But a protest at Homerton hospital, in east London, showed that up for the nonsense it was.

A crowd shot of a picket line at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London

Lots of support for the RCN strike at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London (Picture: Guy Smallman)

More than 100 workers there and at a nearby subsidiary unit rallied, chanting, “Our struggle, our fight—we support the nurses’ strike”. They were backed by Royal Mail strikers, the Keep Our NHS Public campaign and climate group Extinction Rebellion. The Labour mayor for Hackney even came to offer his solidarity.

RCN members at Homerton had voted massively in favour of strikes. But the NHS trust had narrowly avoided action because the union missed the turnout threshold by a small number of votes. “People here had so much wanted to be part of the action,” one Unison union activist told Socialist Worker.

“A nurse who works in the homeless team, told us that her colleagues are not just using food banks. Some have faced eviction because they are unable to pay their rent. That’s why this strike is about pay and the future of the NHS.”

Workers for Greater Manchester Mental Health trust also held a lunchtime protest. So did teachers at Islington sixth form in north London.

In Sheffield, striking nurses and postal workers hung banners from a bridge over a main road to the sound of supportive horn-honking from passing drivers.

The wave of enthusiasm and support that has greeted Thursday’s historic nurses’ strike must mark a new stage in the battle against the Tories and austerity. No one can now dare say that NHS strikes are unpopular and will be isolated.

Packed room for solidarity meeting in Liverpool

It was standing room only at the Liverpool solidarity meeting

Vibrant solidarity at Liverpool rally

About 230 strikers and supporters came to a really brilliant solidarity meeting in Liverpool on Thursday, the day of the nurses’ strike. It was called by Liverpool trades council, with the support of University of Liverpool UCU union.

The room was absolutely packed, with union banners on display around the room including from the  RMT and the dockers.

There was a big contingent from the dockers, but the largest group by far was the nurses in the RCN union. They had marched to the rally from their pickets at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital together with rail and university workers, Shelter strikers and civil service workers.

The moment of their entrance was electrifying, one of those times when you have a real sense of the possibility of working class unity and power.  The platform speakers at the rally were great, with all the current and recent fights represented.

Regular massive rounds of applause, and several standing ovations, greeted speakers, especially the RCN one. Some of the most positive reactions came for those speakers who linked the strikes to the defence of services, supporting refugees, and resisting the rolling back of trans and women’s rights.

Karl Schofield, vice chair of Liverpool No.5 RMT branch, denounced the actions of the Tories and rail bosses who are attacking safety and workers’ conditions and seeking to set workers against one another.  He said it is “our time now to stand up to be counted” and that workers “hold the real power”.

There was a determination to see more unified action. Those attending gave £520 to strike funds and resolved to hold a joint-union march in January. And there was general support for a new Trade Union Solidarity Forum where the problems of the movement and questions of strategy can be debated.

 It was an event that lifted all of us present.

Mark O’Brien

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