By Yuri Prasad and Sophie Squire
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2853

Striking nurses remain defiant—and question RCN union leaders’ strategy

Nurses had their 48-hour strike cut short under Tory anti-union laws
Issue 2853
A crowd shot of pickets during the RCN nurses' strike at UCH in central London, in the foreground there is a banner from the Unison local government workers union from nearby Camden

Solidarity from Unison union council workers at UCH in central London during the RCN nurses’ strike

Thousands of nurses across England again took to picket lines on Monday in the fight for a proper pay rise. The RCN union members are furious that the government has offered a rise of just 5 percent for this year—despite inflation being more than double that.

At St Thomas’ hospital in central London, Alice said she was striking for one key reason. “We need more nurses” she said. “We are never fully staffed. We are always filling shifts with bank shift workers.”

She and her colleagues were angry that the government took their union to court to reduce their planned 48-hour strike to just 28 hours.

Alice said that it was an “underhanded” move. “It was definitely political what the Tories did,” she said. “They will have spent a lot of money to go through the courts. It was just to say, we have power over you, you have to do what we want.”

At nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital, picket lines were lively despite a deal between the RCN and the hospital that forced many nurses to work through the strike.

Charleen said she had mixed feelings about this move. “On one hand I get it, we look after vulnerable children,” she said. “On the other hand, as a worker, I feel a bit betrayed.” She added that the union should have stuck to its planned 48-hour strike, despite the Tories legal victory.

“I think we should have struck anyway, and I think people I know would agree with me,” she said. “Now is the time to escalate and have more strike days. We work 10 hours days. I barely see my son because I am working all the time, something needs to change.”

Charleen is one of many that are asking serious questions about how the RCN leaders have conducted the battle so far. There was consternation among nurses when it became clear that the union had decided not to contest the court case with its own legal team.

Instead, RCN leader Pat Cullen faced the judge alone with a statement that said little more than the union believed the whole of the planned strike was lawful.

In the days leading up to the court case Cullen had promised a robust defence of the strike, with a legal team well versed in union case law. The union has so far not said why it did not properly contest the case.

And it’s not just in the court where the leadership has failed. The RCN called off action earlier this year as soon as the Tories agreed to talks, despite strikes being the best way to push ministers to offer more.

Union leaders then pushed hard for nurses to accept the government’s pitiful offer on pay last month. They then threatened a police investigation against members so outraged that they signed a petition calling for the existing union council to resign.

That means nurses cannot leave the coming ballot for an all-England strike in the hands of the union leaders and officials.

Get behind unions fighting for more

Smirking Tory health secretary hopes a meeting of the NHS Staff Council this week will accept his pay deal so he can declare the NHS fight “over”.

The meeting – which takes place on Tuesday – includes representatives from all health unions and will vote on whether to accept the deal.

By last week most unions had voted to accept, and that means the vote will likely go their way.

The government will likely then implement the 5 percent pay rise from April, and pay the agreed one-off lump sum for last year.

That will please leaders of the major Unison union. It has the most votes and has gone out of its way to puff up the Tory deal. But whatever the decision, the RCN, Unite, the Society of Radiographers and the Royal College of Podiatry are rightly still demanding better.

Unite members, including ambulance workers in some parts of England, were on strike on Monday and Tuesday this week.

Craig, a security guard and Unite member at St Thomas’ hospital explained why he was out on Monday. “Since being brought in-house for the last three years it’s been a battle,” he told Socialist Worker.

“We were told it was something to celebrate but it hasn’t been much better. So many colleagues have left because the pay is so bad.”

Fellow security guard Jamie added that the nurses and other striking health workers have been an inspiration to all working in the health service.

“Strikes by porters, security and catering services are also inspiring for the nurses — we’re all in this together.”

Most health workers share that feeling. You can see that in the union votes on the pay offer. Many were a lot closer than union leaders were hoping.

In the GMB union, for example, those in favour of the deal came to 56 percent. But those rejecting their leaders’ pressure and voting against came to 44 percent. Midwives in the RCM union voted by 57 percent to accept, with 43 rejecting.

That means there are thousands of NHS workers that still want to fight. And it’s why activists should get behind unions still on the pay battlefield.

Assuming the Staff Council has accepted, Barclay will pile on pressure on the BMA junior doctors’ union to settle too without even a new offer on the table. He will insist that he can’t pay doctors more because it will be unfair to other health workers.

We cannot allow them and others still fighting to be isolated and picked off. A victory over pay for any group of health workers, will inspire others to keep up the fight for more.

Where now for the NHS fight?

 The fight over NHS pay is not over—even if you are in a union that has voted to accept the deal.

Everyone should get behind future action by junior doctors and the coming England-wide reballot in the RCN. And any strike by radiographers and podiatrists should be inundated with solidarity.

Health union activists should also look for ways to trigger their own local disputes over issues such as pay banding and retention bonuses.

Nurse and senior Unison union activist Karen Reissmann says there could be further strikes on the issue of pay progression. “That could include fighting for nurses to move from band 5 to band 6 as soon as they have finished their preceptorship training period,” she says.

Unions are waging a serious struggle in bid to get nursing assistants regraded from band 2 to band 3, which would more accurately reflect their skills and workload.

Local disputes could also mean a battle for recruitment and retention premium rates for wards where there are large numbers of vacancies—which is most hospitals these days.

There are also issues that could spark anger, including mileage allowances from workers in the community, and car parking charges for staff at hospitals.

But these fights have to be brought together, and their lessons spread widely. That’s why we need to build on the rank and file organisations that exist and help them put local roots down among every group of health workers.

Already NHS Workers Say No has been able to help win a rejection of the pay deal among RCN members. If it continues to grow, it could help lead the kind of resistance so sorely lacking from national trade unions.

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