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