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”
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.
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”
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?
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