Members of the Royal College of Nursing have overwhelmingly voted to support “ a summer of planned protest activity, followed by an industrial action ballot, should the next Westminster government fail to end the policy of pay restraint”.
Only two members voted against the motion and there were only four abstentions in a vote where every single nurse who took to the lectern spoke in favour of the motion.
“No society is fair when a nurse has to visit a food bank”
The item, proposed by chair of council Michael Brown, was added to the congress agenda after the votes of the RCN pay poll revealed that over 91% of the 52,000 NHS nurses who voted were in favour of action.
Mr Brown urged members in the audience to get the message out there and encourage everyone to vote, as 52,000 members did not fulfill the Trade Unions Act requirement of a 50% turnout to take strike action.
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“NHS providers and the pay review body says the cap needs to be scrapped, it is a shame the government does not,” he told delegates.
“We are not seeking prosperity, we are seeking a fair wage for an undervalued profession,” he said. “No society is fair when a nurse has to visit a food bank.”
“It is time for nursing to stand up and say enough is enough,” he said. “Some in this room will fear for the safety of patients, but if we do not stand up now we can not guarantee the future of the NHS for our children.
“They call us angels and superheroes and then treat us like dirt”
He added: “Let’s make this a summer of change for our colleagues and send a clear message to Westminster that enough is enough.”
Seconding the motion, Ed Freshwater of the RCN Mental Health Forum, said that “government ministers have an egregious ability to listen but not hear”. “They call us angels and superheroes and then treat us like dirt,” he said.
He referred to health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s statements that he wished he could pay nurses more than a 1% pay award, and said that this was delivered with “all the charm of the childcatcher” – a reference to the famous character from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
“How do these hollow platitudes help me feed my family?’ he asked. “How can I give hope to my patients, when I do not know about my future? Let’s have a vote and take the profession back into our hands.”
Catriona Forsyth, from the RCN’s Lancashire East branch, said that since 2014, while MPs’ pay had risen £9,011, pay for a mid band 6 nurse had increased by just £911.
“Get off your knees and rise up and tell this government”
Addressing the concerns of members about the impact of action on patients, RCN council member Dave Dawes said: “We can disrupt CQC inspections, internal markets, and cause financial and management chaos but still protect patients.”
He urged delegates to not ignore the feelings of members, who had made a “historic statement that enough was enough” through the pay consultation.
“Unison and Unite have never had 63,000 votes before, so please honour the biggest nursing vote ever in UK history and support this resolution,” he said.
Several speakers discussed the point often made by Mr Hunt in the media that the money for pay rises could not be afforded because the government was increasing the number of nurses on wards.
They voiced concerns that, while bankers and other professions were not supplementing the increase in ward staff, nurses were expected to.
They also challenged the assumption that staff numbers were increasing, and said that the pressure of the workforce challenges made the pay restraint even more worrying for the future of the NHS.
“We deserve respect and we will get it together”
Community nurse and pay campaigner Danielle Tiplady, who has made several media appearances on the issue in recent weeks, said she could not afford a car to travel to work, and had a nurse friend who was selling her flat as she could not afford a mortgage and to eat.
“We deserve respect and we will get it together,” she said.
Andy McGovern, an RCN council member for London, said he found it ironic that the government could be elected on 30% of the vote, but did not recognise the voices of 52,000 nurses. “Congress, let’s get 100% and end pay restraint now,” he said.
BJ Waltho, vice-chair of congress, took to the podium in an unusual move to voice her “mixed emotions” about the motion.
“I feel sad that we have been forced to do this,” said a clearly emotional Ms Waltho. “I never thought I would have to do this in my profession. Get off your knees and rise up and tell this government.”
Referring to the fact that both the main opposition parties’ leaders will be addressing congress this year, she questioned why prime minister Theresa May and Mr Hunt were not in Liverpool this week.
“I am tired of being undervalued. It is time to make a stand”
Zeba Arif, chair of RCN National Forensic Nursing Forum, urged delegates to find those members who were not planning to vote in the election and talk to them about how important it was to take part.
“I am a patient, and all patients will agree with this. If nurses don’t stand up for patients, no one will,” she said.
RCN Eastern representative Gina Newton, from the college’s Essex branch, said she had stood at congress two years ago and spoke against striking, but she had now changed her mind. “We must do this,” she said.
A few members were concerned about the impact on patient care and former RCN president Professor Dame Betty Kershaw urged members not to follow the British Medical Association’s example by telling the public on Friday that action would be taken on Tuesday. More notice should be given, she suggested.
Former RCN president Andrea Spyropoulos congratulated Mr Brown for bringing the motion and to members for voting. “Respect to Theresa May, for being the first prime minister to get nurses to strike,” she said. ”What a legacy.”
Charlotte Hall, from the RCN Student Council, said: “I have come to speak to those of you who did not take part in the poll…we need to take action as we have exhausted all other avenues.”
“If nurses don’t stand up for patients, no one will”
Despite chair of congress Stuart McKenzie asking members to come forward if they wanted to speak against the motion, no one did.
Liverpool-based healthcare assistant Leslie Green gave one of the most passionate speeches of the debate. Addressing her comments to Mr Hunt directly, he said: “Come and work a shift with me and any of my colleagues that we are not worth more than 1%.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “I am tired of struggling to make ends meet. I am tired of being undervalued. It is time to make a stand.”
His point received the first full standing ovation of this year’s congress.
In summing up, Mr Brown said that the college would work with other unions, including Unite, Unison, BMA and GMB, to organise the protests, and would encourage and facilitate students to be on the frontline of any activity.
He said that the poll of 270,000 NHS members attracted 52,434 votes and acknowledged that this meant there was a “hell of a lot more to do to get these [other] people engaged”.