It comes to something when an event is declared historic even before the first coffee break, but on Sunday something pretty momentous happened at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual congress.
Delegates debated whether they should hold a “summer of protest” to raise awareness of their opposition to the 1% cap on NHS pay rises. The emergency resolution was tabled and passed.
It followed the industrial action survey carried out by the college, in which an unprecedented 52,000 NHS staff made their opinions known. It was the biggest nursing vote ever in the UK, and was the first time in its history that the college has taken steps that could ultimately lead to strikes.
Both the poll and the motion were pretty historic, but we are a long way off from seeing picket lines drawn up yet. Under trade union laws, the RCN must have a 50% turnout in a formal ballot to be able to call a strike. And of that 50% turnout, 80% must be in favour of a strike.
So there is, as many delegates expressed, a lot of work to be done to engage members to vote, and to come out in favour of painting their placards.
“I saw nurses take to the podium at congress and declare that they had changed their minds”
But for the first time ever, the college seems to have an appetite for it. In 2014, its then leaders refused to consult members over industrial action to push the pay issue. This was despite the fact that the Royal College of Midwives decided to strike over the government’s attempt to to ignore the accepted pay review body process and give only those at the top of bands a 1% rise.
But now that mood has definitely shifted. I saw nurses take to the podium at congress and declare that they had changed their minds. After being vehemently opposed to striking just a couple of years ago, they now felt it was their only course of action.
And as former RCN president Andrea Spyropoulos remarked: “What a legacy Theresa May has left, to be the first prime minister to bring nursing to its knees.”
I suspect RCN members have witnessed the British Medical Association take a stand against Jeremy Hunt’s renegotiation of the junior doctors’ contracts, and have been fired up to defend their bank balances too.
Nurses were further outraged by the prime minister’s attitudes to nurses demonstrated by her refusal to accept the poverty some nurses are dealing with on the Andrew Marr show when she was recently asked about nurses using food banks.
This would have subsequently been compounded by the prime minister’s refusal to come and speak to congress in Liverpool this week.
“It will seem to many that the only way to get the prime minister’s attention is to go out on strike”
And it will seem to many that the only way to get the prime minister’s attention – should she be back in Downing Street on 9 June – is to go out on strike.
The plans, this summer, are to raise awareness of the need for member engagement, and to persuade them that action is the only way to stop the government continuing its policy of real-terms pay cuts.
The only worry, for many nurses, is that they may lose public sympathy for their cause. And at congress, delegates spoke about the need to be considerate of patients and service users when deciding on the type of action, and scheduling it.
“Ms May and Mr Hunt have always banked on the goodwill of nursing staff”
Whereas previously, RCN members have always worried that industrial action would harm patients, they now seem to feel that the erosion of the workforce from pay cuts are a bigger potential threat to patient safety.
I think Ms May and Mr Hunt have always banked on the goodwill of nursing staff and other healthcare professionals to keep the NHS going, and to prevent major disruption to its services.
Sadly, I think they’ve pushed it too far this time, and that goodwill has run out.