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'The RCN is fighting for its members'


A huge amount of work is taking place behind the scenes to negotiate a pension deal, says Peter Carter

It was with a sense of disappointment that I read Mark Radcliffe’s latest article (“Tis the season to take a stand against the war on nursing,” opinion, 13 December, page 11), in which he appears to accuse the Royal College of Nursing of being weak and ineffective on the issues that matter most, like pay and pensions.

He alleges that if the chancellor continues to make working life even tougher for nursing staff, then the RCN “might get quite cross”. There are some who wrongly believe that the RCN isn’t a real union; how can it be when it also works on clinical issues? When it offers training and development opportunities? When it prefers to influence politicians, instead of just complaining about their decisions? I firmly believe that these two elements of the RCN, the professional and trade union sides, are not our weakness, they are our strength.

“I’m very proud of our work on pensions so far, we’ve acted intelligently and with a cool head”

Make no mistake, recent government decisions have been barely veiled attacks on our members’ hard earned rights, all to clean up a mess that nurses didn’t create. In his piece, Mr Radcliffe touches on the chancellor’s recent announcement that he would cap public sector pay at 1%. He was right to mention this as it signifies the latest in a string of provocative and divisive decisions relating to our members’ pay, pensions and terms and conditions. I hope that readers will be comforted to know we will not take this latest attack lying down; we will fight for our members’ pay at every stage. As Josie Irwin, our head of employment relations, wrote in the last issue of Nursing Times, the government has “seriously undermined” the pay review body and “put industrial relations in serious jeopardy” (opinion, 13 December, page 7).

This brings me onto the other topic that Mr Radcliffe raises: pensions. Many of you reading this will know that the RCN has said that our Council will ballot for industrial action in January, if negotiations fail. We have, to the disappointment of some and relief of others, decided to continue with the talks and discussions in earnest. There are some who appear to confuse a desire to continue talking with the government as a sign that the RCN is prepared to give up. I don’t mind admitting that I find this attitude bizarre. The current pension deal was arrived at through negotiations, as was the one before that; it’s just the way things are done. We could of course have left the table months ago, meaning that the RCN had no influence over the next deal whatsoever and that whatever is decided would just be imposed on our members. We would never let this happen; the RCN employs expert negotiators and intends to make the deal work for nursing staff, rather than the government.

In his article, Mr Radcliffe argues that the RCN should have balloted by now so that our members can have “an opportunity to voice a view”. The reality, however, is that a ballot is not an exercise in just gathering opinions, it is a legally important, democratic process which will either result in industrial action or not. This whole process, from negotiation to offer, to re-negotiation to any possible ballot, is a finely tuned one and one which the RCN knows very well. While I understand frustration that we haven’t reached a result yet, the reality is that a huge amount of work is taking place behind the scenes.The RCN is meeting with the government on a regular basis and at the same time, actively preparing for a ballot.

I’m very proud of our work on pensions so far, we’ve acted intelligently and with a cool head, constantly fighting for what matters to our member most. The year 2012 will be incredibly important and one in which the RCN will continue to act as the voice of our profession, defending nurses when they come under attack and fighting for what we know to be right.

Happy Christmas.

Peter Carter is chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing


Readers' comments (13)

  • Hi Peter
    thanks for taking the time to update us via NT.

    I think Mark was reflecting what is now very common feeling amongst nursing staff at the coalface.

    It's clear that the rules of the game have changed and that the gvt is pedalling it's propaganda via the Tory media. They realise that there is huge public support and sympathy from the public for it's NHS and nursing, and they must tackle this to push through their changes to the NHS. However, public attitude is beginning to change because of what seems like a daily attack on nursing via the usual media outlets. Friends who I have known for years are now telling me I don't deserve my 'gold-plated' pension.

    Clearly, the government believe that manipulating public opinion to their own ends puts them in a stronger position at the negotiating table. The huge disappoinment for nurses is that the RCN seems silent on the issue: I would suggest that we need to see you fighting our corner using the Tory media in addition to NT.

    A great many nurses are not aware that the pensions issue has nothing to do with 'people are living longer' (the recent changes to the scheme sorted that out) - it's really about the plans to change the NHS from a provider to a commissioner only of care. The government reognise that that will mean no new employees paying into the scheme (everyone will be working for a private company and therefore require a private pension), yet this issue is never discussed by the RCN in the media. Why is that? It appears that the gvt is running towards a USA type system of healthcare and the RCN is holding hands and sleepwalking with them.

    These changes are truly fundamental, both for nursing and nurses including our salary and working conditions. Yet the RCN is absent from the current judge and jury approach adopted by the Tory media. Clearly this is not fighting '...for our members' pay at every stage'. Wake up, get media savvy and fight our case there, too.

    I joined the RCN precisely because it's strength is as a professional/union body. I am convinced of the value of the professional advocacy but I and most other nurses I speak to believe that the RCN has to change, has to engage the gvt beyond the negotiating table, and right in amongst the right wing press. Until you do, the RCN will continue to lose credibility with not only those that understand the media so well like Mark, but nurses at the coalface.

    You also attempt to defend your position on the failure (as many see it) to ballot nurses by patronisingly explaining the ballot process as a validation of the RCN position to continuing negotiation. Yet, the other healthcare unions have managed to ballot, strike and continue negotiating with the gvt on behalf of their members. I'm not suggesting that striking is the answer to everything (it isn't), but your silence on the issue means most nurses have not given any thought to the possibility, so that if negotiations do fail, most nurses will not have had chance to change the cultural mindset that is required in order to strike. Again, it's about managing opinion and this is where the RCN is spectacularly failling.

    My personal expectation is that I will have a significantly worse pension having worked much longer and contributed much more. This is in addition to a real terms pay cut of 9-10% in the last two years, and with the proposed 1% rise for the next two years, again this represents a real terms pay cut of about 7-8% at current levels of inflation. As I type I ask myself is my expectation of my union so low in that they will secure such a poor deal. And I am left wondering why I continue to pay my subscriptions month on month. However, the few of my nursing friends who are in Unison do not have the same feelings about their union. They tell me that they see only to clearly that Unison is fighting for their case. It's up to you to persuade me and many other RCN members that this is the case for us.

    Good luck. You will need it!

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  • Very well thought out response, as an RCN member I would really like to hear the unions reply to this. In my response to the RCN questionaire emailed to members, I also suggested that the RCN is absolutely in need of achieving air time and defending the reality of the NHS pension scheme.
    The abscence of balloting members demonstrated the RCN's misjudgement of the level of feeling within its membership.
    Unions can only exist because of its members, those employed by the RCN need to be very aware of this as the more RCN members I talk to the more the feeling of moving to another Union is mentioned.
    So come on RCN, we pay you to speak up on our behalf, lets hear you.

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  • Thank-you for the succinct points and questions from the above readers comments!

    Dr Carter/RCN when will we expect your further engagement and response to these?

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  • 'The current pension deal was arrived at through negotiations, as was the one before that; it’s just the way things are done'

    Ok... I can accept that. Bbut when the last negotiated agreement is unilaterally scrapped by the government there is a chance that negotiation will not work. Realistically we should hold out for NO CHANGES!
    I keep hearing how AfC is too expensive - but many changes helped save money.

    I am glad I left the weak Rcn!

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  • Shame on you Peter Carter. You are taking a large salary under false pretences

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  • Why is your work "behind the scenes" Mr.Carter?

    You should be marching up and down outside Number 10 and beating the drum for nurses and the NHS.

    (Before it`s too late !!!!!!!!!!!!!)

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  • misinterpreted the title reading it in a hurry and thought the article would be about the RCN fighting to keep its members!

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  • 'The RCN is fighting for its members'

    No, it isn't.
    We are currently losing the battle for our pensions. The public sector has become the fall guy for all this country's economic ills. This government, ably assisted by the media, has manipulated blame for our current situation onto those in the NHS and other areas of the public sector. Where has been the vocal and robust response? Let's be honest. It has fallen mainly to the other unions, Unison in particular, to defend Nurses and other workers. The Nurses union has been too quiet and now has the gall to claim that it is working behind the scenes. Absolute garbage. Shameful. Let's be having your resignation Peter Carter; for the complete failure of you and cohorts to effectively represent the hard working nurses of this country.

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  • tinkerbell

    Mags | 29-Dec-2011 5:51 pm

    But Mags there's stuff going on in a mysterious way 'behind the scenes' that you know nothing about, just keep paying your dues and one day they may let you know what that fight is all about and whether or not they won. At the end of the next year they may have come up with a top tip on how to cook your turkey without it drying out, come on Mags give the old RCN a chance, there's stuff going on behind the scenes you know nothing about.

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  • One does not doubt that the RCN have been talking all this time but it is the content of that talking and the passion underlaying the significance of what is being talked about - this is not a fireside chat with a member of one's club over an after dinner brandy - this is the life of their members (not to mention their Union membership payments!)

    Basic psychology: most meaningful communication is understood and appreciated via NON VERBAL cues!

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