Nursing staff represented by the RCN have never taken industrial action.
But after a seventh year of real-terms cuts to pay packets, the council that I chair has put this option to all our members working in the NHS anywhere in the UK.
It’s not the only route on offer but the elected council of the RCN decided that nursing staff should have a direct influence on how we respond to the government’s persistent below-inflation pay awards.
Our pay poll will be powerful if it truly represents the diverse views in our membership. I am urging nurses who are wholly against strike action to vote just as much as somebody who would support it.
“The issues we face are as vast as they are varied”
But regardless of that split, most will agree that these are troubled times for our profession. The issues we face are as vast as they are varied. And a good number have the same root cause - pay.
The past decade has seen domestic austerity after a global financial crisis. The NHS was not immune from that. But nursing staff have still not seen the green shoots of recovery.
It cannot be repeated often enough: a pay ‘rise’ that fails to keep up with inflation is in fact a pay cut. Rising inflation means a rise in bills, food and rent. Nursing pay has fallen by 14% in the last seven years. The cap on pay has a negative impact as much on patient care as the nurse’s personal life.
The government is well aware too. The RCN has campaigned hard for the removal of the cap, with this year being the hardest push yet. The #scrapthecap campaign saw more than 100,000 people sign a petition to get rid of the pay cap and sparked a debate in parliament.
“The government has dragged morale down and the repercussions are being felt”
However, when the government made its pay announcement in March - we were given yet another measly 1% rise. The RCN council met the next week and voted to go to our members and find out exactly how they wanted to respond - even if that means historic steps towards industrial action.
By making nursing staff suffer financially to stay in the job they love, the government has dragged morale down and the repercussions are being felt. A growing number feel they can no longer afford to work in the profession and others are deterred from joining by the meagre pay on offer. Tens of thousands of nursing posts across the UK lie vacant.
Too often, wards and other care settings are not safely staffed and the nursing staff on shift face unprecedented pressure. The evidence shows that happy, healthy staff deliver the best patient care. Yet we know that this is not how many nurses are feeling. Without the right number of nurses, with the right skills mix, patient safety is at risk.
RCN members are voting on a lot more than whether or not to strike. It is about registering their dissatisfaction with the government and fighting for a valued workforce to deliver even higher standards of patient care.
Michael Brown, Royal College of Nursing, chair of council