After last week’s mass day of action, Tom Bolger looks at what happens next for nurses
The day of action last Wednesday saw 2.2 million public sector workers take industrial action in protest at the government’s proposed changes to their pensions.
Nurses, physiotherapists, teachers and civil servants were all stereotyped by ministers as militants looking for a fight, accused of jeopardising the economy by taking action and of greed for wanting to hang on to unearned gold-plated pensions.
What the day of action showed was that there is a great deal of anger and a sense of injustice over the way public sector workers have been picked on.
And who can blame these workers? The government is asking this predominantly female workforce to work longer, pay more and get less.
An experienced ward sister in mid-career now will be expected to carry on working until she is 67, pay an additional £318 a year in pension contributions and receive an annual cut in her pension of more that £9,000 a year.
This at a time when the top 1% of earners in the UK had average increases of 49% in their pay and other remuneration in the last year.
“I would not put it beyond George Osborne and David Cameron to try to create continuing conflict to undermine public confidence in the NHS to help them in their drive to gradually bring in a US insurance-based private-sector-led health service”
Then, to continue the bullying from the coalition government, the chancellor has announced a 1% pay cap on any rises in the next two years, following directly after a two-year pay freeze. This is way below the rate of inflation and busting through any notion of pay review bodies advising on what is fair.
It doesn’t feel like we are all in it together. It feels as if nurses are being blamed for the mess that bankers and politicians have made of our economy. No wonder people are angry.
After the marches and rallies, what happens next for nurses? There has been a difference of opinion between the big general trade unions and the Royal College of Nursing about the best way forward.
The RCN felt strongly that any consideration of industrial action should wait until the 31 December deadline for agreement has come and gone. RCN members were at protests and chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter spoke at the London rally - but they didn’t take industrial action.
RCN council is meeting on 10 January and is poised to press the button on a ballot for action if no agreement is reached.
There is some nervousness at the top about the turnout and fear that, if this is low, it will undermine the case for action. This will put added pressure on the negotiators to come up with a deal. Surely this is achievable.
As I see it, the only thing that can get in the way of common sense is political ideology. I would not put it beyond George Osborne and David Cameron to try to create continuing conflict to undermine public confidence in the NHS to help them in their drive to gradually bring in a US insurance-based private-sector-led health service.
Now that is a real nightmare scenario and I would remind any RCN members and decision-makers reading this that, if it does come to a ballot, the opportunity to vote is the democracy in action - turnout is a minor issue.
Failure to participate is by itself part of the process and gives assent to the outcome whichever way it goes.
To the government I would say - remember at least 2.2 million votes are at risk at the next election if you screw
And, to those who don’t participate, I would remind you of something Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Tom Bolger is health and social care consultant and former RCN assistant general secretary