Nurses and other NHS workers in England have voted in favour of strike action over the government’s pay deal in a Unison ballot.
The “yes” vote could lead to stoppages in early October, followed by further strikes and action short of a strike over the autumn and winter.
More than two thirds of the union’s NHS members that took part in the ballot said they would be prepared to take strike action over pay.
“This government’s treatment of NHS workers has angered them and this anger has now turned into action”
Meanwhile, nearly 90% said they were also prepared to take industrial action short of striking, such as protests.
The union announced the results of its ballot of health members, including nurses, healthcare assistants occupational therapists, porters, paramedics, medical secretaries and cooks, this lunch time.
It balloted its 300,000 members in England between 28 August and 18 September, and is the first of a number of unions that are balloting over pay to announce its results.
Unison asked its health members two questions – whether they were prepared to take part in a strike and whether they were prepared to take part in industrial action, short of a strike.
The results were as follows:
Are you prepared to take part in a strike?
Are you prepared to take part in action short of strike action?
At present, Unison has chosen not to officially confirm the turnout figure, which would indicate whether it has a clear mandate for action.
However, based on data made available on the union’s website, 40,000 votes were cast from among 300,000 of Unison’s NHS members. Nursing Times has therefore calculated that turnout was around 13%, though the true figure is likely to be slightly higher because not all NHS members were balloted.
A spokeswoman for the union told Nursing Times that it did not plan to release the turnout figure, but said the ballot “result shows a positive and strong majority for action”.
Another nine unions are currently balloting NHS members over pay, including Unite, the GMB and the Royal College of Midwives – for the first time in its history. Results are expected over coming weeks.
Depending on the outcome of these ballots, Unison said it would be coordinating with the other unions over the date and type of action it planned to take.
The ballots come in response to the government in England’s decision to reject the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendation to increase the pay of all staff in Agenda for Change by 1%.
Ministers have offered a two-year deal in which staff at the top of their pay band will receive 1%, but those due incremental pay awards get not further rise.
Unison claims this means that 60% of NHS staff and 70% of nurses will not get a pay rise for the next two years.
In addition, the 1% increase is non-consolidated, meaning it will not count towards pension entitlements or shift pay and could be wiped away at the end of March 2016, taking wages would go back to their April 2013 level.
The Welsh government has said it too would not be following the Pay Review Body’s recommendations. Instead, all staff on Agenda for Change will get a one-off payment of £160 and those not at the top of pay bands will get an incremental pay rise.
The Scottish government is the only UK government so far to accept the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body to award all staff a 1% consolidated increase.
“We cannot afford incremental pay increases – which disproportionately reward the highest earners – on top of a general pay rise without risking frontline NHS jobs”
Department of Health
The Northern Ireland government has yet to announce its arrangements.
In response to the “yes” vote, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “This government’s treatment of NHS workers has angered them and this anger has now turned into action.
“We know health workers don’t take strike action lightly or often. The last action over pay was 32 years ago,” he said. “But we also know a demoralized and demotivated workforce isn’t good for patients.”
“If we move into industrial action we will work with NHS employers to minimize the impact on patients,” he added.
However, Mr Prentis said it was “not too late” for health secretary Jeremy Hunt to avoid strikes and repeated an offer to the government to negotiate with unions over pay.
Mr Hunt, meanwhile, said in March that he was prepared to negotiate with the unions over further changes to contractual terms and conditions in return for better pay.
As yet, neither side appears to have accepted the others offer to return to the negotiating table.
Responding to today’s ballot result, a Department of Health spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that Unison is planning industrial action and has rejected our proposals to give NHS staff at least 1% additional pay this year and at least a further 1% next year.
“NHS staff are our greatest asset and we know they are working extremely hard. This is why despite tough financial times, we’ve protected the NHS budget and now have 13,500 more clinical staff than in 2010. We want to protect these increases and cannot afford incremental pay increases – which disproportionately reward the highest earners – on top of a general pay rise without risking frontline NHS jobs.
“We remain keen to meet with the unions to discuss how we can work together to make the NHS pay system fairer and more affordable.”
“I would strongly urge unions to take patients out of this dispute and instead continue constructive discussions”
NHS Employers, which represents health service organisations and often negotiates on behalf of the government on workforce issues, said it was also disappointed by the ballot result.
Gill Bellord, director of employment relations and reward at the NHS Employers, said: “We remain hopeful that a decision will be made not to proceed with strike action.
“We completely understand the frustration of many staff following a prolonged period of pay restraint but patient safety must always be our first priority,” she said. “I would strongly urge unions to take patients out of this dispute and instead continue constructive discussions, exploring ways to come out of this period of pay restraint in a sustainable way.”
Ms Bellord added: “We have asked unions to ensure they give employers far more than the minimum seven days statutory notice to help plan patient care, should unions formally proceed to strike action.”
The Royal College of Nursing currently has no plans for a ballot. Instead it is opting to fight the pay decision “politically” by lobbying MPs and staging protests.
RCN leader Pater Carter used a keynote speech in June to steer members away from strike action over pay. He advised members to “think carefully” before calling for a strike ballot, and instead advocated alternative forms of action such as lobbying MPs and protests.
Ballot results in detail:
Unison has 300,000 NHS members in England
Number of votes cast: 40,104
Number answering “yes” to “are you prepared to take part in a strike?”: 26,126
Number answering “no” to “are you prepared to take part in a strike?”: 12,493
Number of spoiled voting papers: 1,485
Number answering “yes” to “are you prepared to take part in action short of a strike?”: 33,481
Number answering “no” to “are you prepared to take part in action short of a strike?” : 4,756
Number of spoiled voting papers: 1,867
Source: Unison website