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RCN leader urges members to 'think carefully' before striking over pay


The leader of the Royal College of Nursing has used a keynote speech to the union’s annual conference to steer members away from strike action over pay.

The move is the first public acknowledgement from the college’s leadership that strike threats are not their favoured response to the government’s pay offer.

“Think what going on strike really means. For a strike to work, it has to have a real impact on someone or something”

Peter Carter

Instead, they plan to target around 40 MPs in marginal seats through lobbying activities, which they hope will put pressure on ministers and their shadows.

Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said he knew nurses were “angry” about the Westminster government’s decision to ignore the Pay Review Body’s recommendation of a blanket 1% pay rise.

He described the government’s move to offer a 1% rise to only those at the top of pay bands and not to those due an increment rise as “ruthless” and “insulting”.  

“It’s a double standard, it’s insulting and it’s blatantly unfair,” he told the RCN’s annual congress in Liverpool.

Meanwhile, he welcomed the Scottish government’s decision to give all Agenda for Change staff 1%, but noted that nursing staff in Wales and Northern Ireland “were still waiting for a decision”.

The RCN leader urged his members to “think very hard” about what they wanted to do in response to the pay issue, noting that other unions were already discussing ballots on industrial action.

RCN Congress 2014

Peter Carter address RCN Congress 2014

He said: “I know you’re angry…but however insulting the government’s pay settlement is, and however hard that makes things for you, you do need to think carefully about strike action.

“Think what going on strike really means. For a strike to work, it has to have a real impact on someone or something,” he told RCN members.

“If you’re a nurse, it means abandoning your patients – leaving those babies in the neonatal unit – cancelling that visit to an elderly patient in the community – walking out of the emergency department, or psychiatric ward.

“However strong your feelings, I know you won’t leave your patients in the lurch,” he said. “That’s not what you came into this job to do.”

Instead, Mr Carter highlighted “alternative forms of industrial action without going on strike”, such as lobbying and protests like that which took place on 5 June.

In the spring, the RCN wrote to MPs asking them to support efforts to contest the government’s decision to hold back a basic pay rise for many nurses.

Mr Carter said this pressure would be escalated in the run up to next year’s general  election.

“The fact is MPs will need your vote and your vote can be the difference between returning to parliament or being out of a job,” he said.

“That’s why now is the time to lobby them. To flush them out to say where they are standing on health workers’ salaries.” 

“I know nurses. I have never seen them so angry”

Peter Carter

However, Mr Carter told congress that he recognised that “it is for you to decide” on the type of action that the college took over pay.

But he added: “I would be failing in my job if I did not give you my honestly held opinion.”

In a press conference after his speech, he sought to explain further his views on strike action.

“I know nurses. I have never seen them so angry, and feeling they are put down all the time when most of them are doing a great job,” he said.

“But I would rather set out my stall that when it comes to crunch time, they are not going to be walking out of wards and leaving patients, they are not going to do it because they are not that type of people,” he said.

In April, members of Unison voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ballot on industrial action, including striking, over pay – though a date for this vote has so far not been announced.

Fellow unions Unite and the Royal College of Midwives are currently holding consultation exercises with members on whether to ballot for action.

Mr Carter also used his speech to tackle a range of other issues, including staffing levels and the structure of the college.

He warned that the health service was “still in dire need of an immediate boost” to nursing numbers and a longer-term approach to workforce planning.

“Staff numbers are beginning to rise, but it’s going to take years to recover from the damage that’s been done,” he said.

Meanwhile, he told congress the issue of whether the college would be more effective if it split its union and professional functions “hasn’t gone away entirely”.

Last year’s Francis report into care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust called on the RCN to consider if the two roles needed separation. 

But Mr Carter said: “I just want to emphasise that I see our trade union and professional roles as complementary. They are not in conflict.”


Should nurses ever go on strike?

We’re going to be hosting a discussion on this important topic at 1pm on Wednesday 19 June using the hastag #NTtwitchat


Andrew Bassett-Scott Toogood sings about fair pay at RCN Congress 2014


Readers' comments (17)

  • Alternative forms of Industrial Actions don't work hence our deplorable pay

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  • tinkerbell

    “However strong your feelings, I know you won’t leave your patients in the lurch,” he said. “That’s not what you came into this job to do'.

    so how does the RCN/RCN union plan to support its members during the current 'dire' situation? Sounds like they're advising just put up with more of the same, no conflict of interests ? when that's the best advice it can give its union members.

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  • Don't you dare, Carter, don't you dare. Of course we know the consequences of striking. I have 200+ hours of time owing to me. I will never get it back. For the last 4 weeks I have worked a day for free on my day off. Do you think this was because I was acutely aware of the impact of poor care or because I don't give a shit?
    Sadly, the RCN is not fit for purpose. Sadly, nurses are seen as easy pickings by gvt ministers. I have had a 10% real terms pay cut. I have a family to support. I am sick and tired of looking in the bargain bin at the supermarket. My son is going to university in September. I cannot afford to support him. And the interest rate will rise this year increasing my mortgage payments. My daughter wants to go on a school trip to France and I cannot afford to send her. I am sick and tired of working a full time job and then moonlighting with 2 other jobs to pay the bills.
    I want action. I want you, who enjoys a salary considerably higher than mine, to secure me a pay rise that makes life a little easier. I want to work just one full time job. Why are you reminding me about the effect on patients of trying to secure a living wage? Get me a decent salary and you, and more importantly patients, will continue to get a brilliant nurse working day in, day out at the coal face. I am doing my bit. I am paying you to do yours. As a union, the RCN peaks at ineffectual, then it's all downhill from there. Don't you dare remind me of the corner that I am being backed into - I would rather you just get on with doing the job I am paying you to do and attack the damaging ideology of Hunt - who believes that the NHS should not exist - rather than trying to take me on a guilt trip. It's time for a change.

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  • Well said anonymous..,!!. Carter, the people at the top have been churning out the same rubbish as you... That is why nurses are in this position now....!!!!

    Spineless, weak leader, get rid of him

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    It is all we nurses have left. Please don't listen to the clap trap from Carter et al at the RCN. They're in cahoots with Govt. We wont need to strike for long - look at other countries where they went on strike. GO ON STRIKE its time we really showed how sick to death we nurses are of how we're treated.

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  • what a surprise the RCN rolling over

    carter is useless and a puppet of this govt

    thank god I left and joined a union which will stand up against this scumbag govt and give me a vote on wether to strike or not

    and I wonder if i'm going to vote yes!!!

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  • Anonymous | 17-Jun-2014 10:00 am

    it is the trade unions which have ruined the profession for all the hard working nurses dedicated to the care of their patients and the country. why are some too foolish to see this?

    the focus in the profession should be on what you have been trained for which continuous learning to inform and improve nursing care in order to offer the very best to patients and not wasting energy on trying to put the world to rights. if you wish to engage in politics you can do that in your own free time and not during working hours funded by the taxpayers and to the cost of patients health, safety and wellbeing.

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  • well said Anonymous, I read carter's piece and thought 'ooh nice bit of emotional brainwashing there'. Not strike? What is there left for us to do? They are relying on us not to strike because thats what the goold old compassionate nursing profession does; puts everyone else first. Well, this worm is starting to turn!!!!

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  • barbara wilson | 17-Jun-2014 12:33 pm

    tough nut - not the attitude expected of a nurse.

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  • The reason that nurses are in this position over pay is because the Government don't expect us to strike. This is how they have been able to award themselves as MP's an 11% payrise. Carter should be supporting nurses to obtain a decent wage rather than using emotional blackmail. I wrote to my MP who replied that if nurses got a 1% pay rise frontline care would suffer as the payrise is equivalent to employing 14,000,00 newly qualified nurses! Balloting MP's is useless in my view, we need direct action from nurses!

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