I was in California recently - yes, lovely, thank you.
I took my daughter on a jet ski and made friends with a sea lion. And I saw some dolphins swimming past the beach, showing off and taking the mickey out of the kite surfers. Anyway, driving from the airport we were passed by a van advertising its wares: “Relationship counselling for you and your pet,” it said.
“How do you train it to do that?” I asked our hosts. “There’s a college in the hills,” they drawled proving that, actually, Americans can be sarcastic if they want. As if George W Bush wasn’t proof enough.
But as if the training issue wasn’t curious enough, the fact that it passed us at speed intrigued me. It was in a hurry. Someone and their pet were experiencing a crisis; maybe a cat was having commitment issues and the pet counsellor was rushing to the rescue. And to collect whatever someone who manages relationships
with pets earns…I’m thinking at least £50 an hour. I thought momentarily about a career change.
I wondered what would happen if these counsellors withdrew their labour? What if they’d had enough of coaxing bunny rabbits to talk through their problems? Or what if someone decided to cut their pay? Or mess with their pensions? And they went on strike. Who would care?
Well presumably someone would - overly committed pet owners, some neurotic dogs maybe. One or two may even be angry but it wouldn’t have quite the impact of a nursing strike would it?
It’s different for nursing obviously. A nursing strike would matter. The paradox of a nursing strike is the fact that by freezing pay, increasing pension contributions and re-framing nursing from public service to economic blight, it is being told it has no value. Yet at the merest mention of industrial action nurses are told that what they do is too important for them to strike. Indeed people are affronted at the very thought. “How could they even consider doing such a thing? Don’t they even care anymore?” And let’s face it, lots of nurses would agree with them because many still find the very idea of striking an anathema.
I wonder if the problem is that discussing a nurses’ strike divides nurses in such a way as to make the action untenable. Without a unity of purpose, striking would simply be an expression of outrage rather than a political tactic designed to protect services. Let’s face it, if this government cared enough about patients to respond to a strike, nurses wouldn’t need to strike in the first place. The profession is caught between a rock and a hard place.
As always when it comes to politics, nursing will be hamstrung by its own diversity. In my view a strike is justifiable if there is a strong chance it will be effective. Personally I don’t have a problem with nurses striking; I went on strike myself in 1989 and we won that particular dispute. But I don’t believe the principle of striking is the issue; I think all that matters is the effectiveness. And I don’t believe a strike would be effective, mostly because a large number of nurses wouldn’t join it.
So what are we left with? A work-to-rule? A withdrawal of goodwill? Or just silent pockets of unfocused unhappiness that has no political manifestation?
This must be one of the hardest times to be a nursing leader because nurses are such a sprawling, disparate mass of difference. How can we make a collective and powerful defence of nursing and its purpose? Perhaps that is the most difficult - and the most important - question of our nursing times?