Industrial  •  RCN - Royal College of Nursing  •  Unite the union

Nurses: defy strike ban and organise for a real pay rise!

29 April 2023

By KD Tait

THE NHS pay dispute has reached a critical point after High Court judges ruled nurses must cut short their strike and GMB members voted to accept the derisory pay deal. The fight goes on, but to win a real pay rise health workers must prepare to defy the anti-trade union laws and organise to take control of the dispute.  

Before the court case, RCN general secretary Pat Cullen promised a robust defence of the strike. But on the day, the union’s lawyers did not attend: Cullen simply read out a statement saying the union believed its strike was lawful.

Whatever the reason, it fits into a pattern of RCN leaders making things easy for the government. First, Cullen unilaterally reduced the union’s claim down from the democratically agreed 19.5% to 10%. Then, they only selectively called hospitals out on strike. Then, the RCN called off action to allow for talks—which lifted the pressure off the government. Finally, the leadership aggressively campaigned for members to accept a totally inadequate offer.

The fact that the Tories resorted to the hated anti-union laws to ban the second day of the strike is proof that only determined strike action backed by a massive solidarity campaign can force the government into paying up. But the RCN leadership’s failure to defend its right to strike shows that it is the members themselves who should have control over the strategy and the negotiations—not the highly paid and unaccountable professional negotiators and officials.

Defend the right to strike

The anti-union laws were designed by the Tories to outlaw effective trade union action. The legal threshold for action prevented hundreds of thousands of health workers from striking during this dispute. Now the Tories want to introduce ‘minimum service’ laws which would force workers to scab on their own strikes.

The best way to defend the right to strike—is to strike! The RCN should refuse to cancel the second day of action. If nurses walk out unofficially, or refuse to cross picket lines where Unite is striking, they would send a powerful message that they won’t be intimidated by government bullies or their tame judges.

Rank and file control

The fact that RCN leaders campaigned for a deal which is less than half the rate of inflation—and only a quarter of the original claim shows that the future conduct of the dispute cannot be left in their hands.

The rank and file nurses’ groups which developed during the vote to reject the deal are now turning their attention to securing the biggest possible turnout in the re-ballot. Cullen’s threat to take the dispute ‘up to Christmas’, is a clear attempt to discourage members with another long drawn-out campaign. The quickest way to end the dispute is by a programme of serious, escalating action.

Every workplace should hold mass meetings to elect a strike committee to build the Yes vote in the re-ballot and discuss the most effective forms of action. Union members can encourage officials to fight for the full claim by demanding rank and file representation in the negotiations.  

Unite health workers

The whole course of the NHS pay campaign shows the urgent need for a single, democratic and fighting union for health workers. The existence of three general unions (Unison, GMB and Unite) and a multitude of professional associations has weakened, not strengthened the dispute.

While the anti-union laws are a major undemocratic obstacle, the neglect of workplace organisation by most unions is also a factor in the failure to make the threshold for strike action. Health workers can make a start by forming cross-union committees where unions are taking action to coordinate activity and demands.

By building on the grassroots organisation which led to the successful no vote and linking the dispute to a wider campaign to defend the NHS, health workers can still win this battle.

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