Underpaid, over-stretched nurses may down tools in response to the insulting offer of a 1% pay increase: a below-inflation award that amounts of a real-terms pay cut. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is canvassing its 270,000 members across the Britain on whether to take strike action.
This would come as another blow to the Tories from radical health workers, only six months after a national junior doctors’ strike was called following Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s imposition of unsafe working hours on trainee medics.
Tory pay restrictions on the NHS since 2010 have resulted in a 14% real-terms pay cut for nursing and other support staff, leaving a vacuum of unfilled nursing posts as prospective applicants are hesitant to apply, given the miserable state of pay and working conditions.
This issue is exacerbated by the government’s decision to scrap NHS bursaries for student nurses and midwives, a move which was opposed by the nationwide Bursary or Bust campaign.
The RCN has never before supported a full strike; this latest, unprecedented move reflects the dire straits faced by nurses and other health workers brutalised by Tory austerity. The results of the ballot will be announced at the RCN’s annual congress in May.
Student nurse at King’s College London, Dan Langley, said the following:
“This is a historic turn for the RCN, one which I fully support. If we ballot for a strike, the next step has to be to build outside of the RCN, link up with other exploited workers in the public sector and beyond, and really hit the Tories where it hurts.”
It is abundantly clear that the NHS has no future under capitalism. The Tories will continually soften it up in preparation for further privatisation by underfunding hospitals and cutting staff wages. This is demanded by the crisis of capitalism, and eagerly encouraged by the government’s capitalist cronies, who are eager to get their hands on the lucrative business opportunities presented by for-profit healthcare.
The Marxist Student Federation stands in unequivocal solidarity with nurses and health workers, and encourages them to take the fight to the Tories ‒ beginning with industrial action, and from there building for a unified strike across the public sector (with the support of the radical youth), and then a general strike that will halt the capitalists in their tracks.
For the future of the NHS: nurses, students and workers ‒ unite and fight!
Royal College of Nursing polls members for strike action
By Bob Percy, Norwich Marxists
Members of both the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison, as well as non-unionised staff in the NHS, are becoming increasingly frustrated with ongoing cuts in conditions and pay.
NHS staff received a 1% pay rise on 1st April; this amounts to a pay cut in real terms, as inflation is at 2.3%. The Daily Mirror recently reported that 17 nurses per day are having to apply for payday loans to make ends meet, whilst the RCN hardship fund payments have already gone up by a quarter in a year.
As a result, for the first time in its history, the RCN is polling its members about their willingness to go on strike.
Traditionally the RCN has opposed strike action. It was formed as a professional organisation for trained nurses in 1916. In 1928 it was given a royal charter - Queen Elizabeth II is currently the patron! And it was not until 1977 that the RCN registered to be an official trade union.
For most nursing staff, Unison has historically been seen as the more militant trade union. Unison claims around half-a-million members in the NHS, made up from nurses, ambulance crews, midwives and admin staff. In the past Unison has been the union that nurses have turned to when they have taken strike action; this is still the case, despite Unison’s lack of leadership in opposing the current derisory pay deal. So whilst many have looked to Unison to provide a lead, the RCN has found itself needing to respond
The RCN currently has a no strike policy. This poll of the membership is set to reverse that. This is a significant change of approach and a sure indicator of the deepening frustration and anger that is welling up amongst NHS staff in general.
At this stage it is important to understand that this is a poll about the union being willing to take industrial action, and not an actual ballot for a strike. However, the RCN leadership has said it will issue a formal ballot after 7th May, when the poll closes.
This poll is a clear demonstration of the pressure the leadership of the RCN are under. Due to the growing anger of nursing staff and the risk of losing members to Unison, the leadership of the RCN is being pushed to adopt a more militant position. Similarly to the radicalisation seen during the junior doctors’ dispute, nurses are now willing to consider industrial action to defend their conditions and their ability to provide care for their patients.
At the moment, neither the leadership of the RCN nor Unison have developed a clear strategy for fighting the cuts in the NHS and resisting the rolling back of nurses’ pay and conditions. The poll in the RCN - and any ballot on strike action that will follow - is a clear and bold step forward and could galvanise the Unison leadership to follow a similar path.
The growing frustration and militancy amongst nursing staff will see both unions being forced into taking action. Unison and the RCN need to be looking towards taking co-ordinated action, alongside other NHS staff, starting with a rolling campaign of one-day strikes.
Localised protests and campaigns to defend the NHS have been developing across the country in opposition to privatisation, cuts, and closures these campaigns are however lacking in a clear focal point and strategy.
Any industrial action by nurses would see huge public support, as was seen by the junior doctors during their dispute, and would become a focal point for the wider #SaveOurNHS campaign. The trade union leaderships of the RCN and Unison must provide a national strategy to defend pay and conditions for nurses - and all NHS staff. Unison and RCN members at a local level need to be working together to campaign for joint action.
Given the depth of the economic crisis, and the onslaught from a Tory government determined to dismantle the NHS, only a bold programme of united, militant action can defend the conditions of nursing staff and provide a way forward for defending the NHS against privatisation and cuts.
Bursary or Bust founder says: it’s time for nurses to get radical – RCN must strike
Anthony Johnson, a student nurse at King’s College London who has already voted in favour of strike action by the RCN, says student nurses need to get radical and get fighting.
Article 4 of the Human Rights Act states that it is illegal for someone to be forced to provide labour. Why then are we happy to have 20,000 student nurses and midwives across the country paying £26 an hour to work within the NHS? The government will call this training.
With almost 10% of nursing posts across England (24,000) unfilled it is impossible to learn whilst working to plug the gaps the Tories have created within our health service.
Bursary or Bust was the campaign that other healthcare students and I created last year to fight against the government’s disastrous policy to remove the NHS Bursary and force us to take out student loans worth up to £64,000 a year.
Student nurses and midwives currently work over 2,300 hours throughout their course for no pay so in the future they will be paying to work. Our courses last 45 weeks (15 weeks longer than the average student); 1 in 2 of us have children; and because we work days, nights and weekends we are unable to hold down part time work. All of this for the lowest professional salary in the UK that has fallen 16% in 7 years.
Where is the rationale then in removing the NHS Bursary? The government would say it is to increase the number of students. Ironic then, that applications have fallen by 23% or 10,000 since the policy was introduced. There weren’t enough mentors in practice to train all these new students anyway but that’s the kind of nonsense you see pandered by the government with almost no pushback from the public.
Where in any other job would you be allowed to fail on every single variable YOU had set and still think that you would be rehired? Only within the Conservative government.
Since entering the politics of healthcare and seeing the vindictive policies that have been implemented over the past 30 years I wonder why there hasn’t been greater uproar by the public. After all, as a national health service it is they who are affected by the failings of our NHS.
Of course, it’s because the mainstream media and parliamentary parties collude with the very organisations that seek to profit from seeing our health service sold-off. It was only because of the heroic actions last year with the Junior Doctors that this corruption was brought to light and now, finally, it can be discussed in the open.
It’s our NHS, something which our ancestors fought through world wars to create. No one has a right sell it off because we are its owners. That’s why we have to fight for it. We must listen to the 400,000 nurses who are about to decide whether or not the time is right for industrial action. We need to champion their cause and apply pressure to the other unions outside of the RCN to make sure that they ballot the other hundreds of thousands of people affected by the government’s pay cuts.
There are 1 million people on the Agenda for Change. We all know someone who works in the NHS. We need to bolster their resolve and give them the confidence to fight for themselves because they will also be fighting for us.
The time is right for another attempt to break this government over their crippling plan of austerity. The NHS and education are their weaknesses. It’s time to go get them.
By Anthony Johnson, student nurse, campaigner and Marxist Student supporter