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15.05.17

RCN threatens first strike in 100-year history over 1% pay cap

Although almost 80% of its members would support going on strike against the government’s 1% pay cap, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has decided to launch a “summer of protest activity” in the NHS instead – but industrial action is still in the cards.

The RCN has never gone on strike before, meaning balloting its members would be a “very significant step”, argued Michael Brown, the organisation’s chair.

But the royal college is still prepared to do so later this year if the government doesn’t drop its controversial 1% pay cap, which the Labour Party has already vowed to scrap should it win the upcoming general election.

In a pay poll launched in late April and closed earlier this month, 91% of over 50,000 surveyed RCN members said they supported industrial action short of a strike, while 78% said they were prepared to go on strike.

The chair of the RCN’s elected council has decided to launch a “summer of protest activity” instead, but has confirmed that it is readying to ballot its members later this year without a further poll if the pay policy isn’t dropped.

The royal college argues that the policy has left nursing staff with a 14% real-terms pay cut since 2010 – a concern which echoes far and wide across the entire NHS workforce.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM), for example, said yesterday that seven years of pay restraint – with at least another three in the horizon – is a “disastrous, unsustainable policy for maternity services and the NHS”. Back in 2014, the RCM took the “historic decision” of going on strike for the first time in its 134-year history.

Brown said the preliminary pay poll has already shown that members “can’t and won’t take any more” in an “unprecedented show of anger and frustration” over the pay cap.

“Politicians must now listen and tell us what they will do about nursing pay. It’s a message to all parties that the crisis in nursing recruitment must be put centre stage in this election,” he added.

“We’re demanding answers on behalf of our patients as well as nursing staff. If we don’t stand up now, how can we guarantee their future safety and wellbeing? We’ve heard from members that they want to send a much tougher message to government which is why we will be leading them in a summer of protest activity.

“They have been clear that if the next government doesn’t respond and lift the unreasonable cap on nursing pay, they want us to ballot on industrial action. It would be the first time RCN members came out and took industrial action in our 100-year history.”

Janet Davies, the organisation’s CEO and general secretary, argued that this announcement is a “reflection of the deep anger members feel”, with the current conditions in the NHS “driving people out of the profession and putting new people off entering it”.

“Our argument is not with patients – this is about ensuring that they get the safe and effective care they need,” said Davies. “The 1% cap on nursing pay is putting patient care at risk. It’s not just the RCN saying this – we heard from NHS trust leaders last week that if nursing staff aren’t paid a proper wage, they won’t be able to keep patients safe.”

Unions were extremely critical when the pay cap was initially introduced, arguing that four more years of salary restraints would “hasten the reluctant exit of many dedicated staff from hospitals”.

In late 2015, NHE also revealed that not every NHS worker would be receiving the 1% pay rise, with former Treasury chief secretary writing in a letter that there should be “no expectation” that the rise would apply to all staff. Both health secretary Jeremy Hunt and NHS Employers thought pay was already “unacceptably high” in the NHS.

Since then, trade unions have come together to say that the pay cap meant the lowest-paid staff will be earning below the minimum wage as early as this year. Overall, it was revealed that the pay rise would actually amount to a pay cut in real terms, with the inflation rate standing at 2.3% earlier this year.

Put patients before politics

According to the RCN, today will mark the single largest day of election campaigning on the NHS so far, with both Labour and Lib Dem leaders Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron setting out their plans at the royal college’s annual congress in Liverpool.

Ahead of the event, Davies challenged all political parties to “put patients before politics” by supporting a nursing manifesto that calls for new legislation on safe staffing, investment in the NHS and social care, and for staff pay to keep up with inflation.

“The NHS does not need irresponsible politicians, of any party, offering ‘cheques in the post’. The bus slogans and sticking plasters let patients down and they must avoid the temptation,” she argued.

“Party leaders must put patients before politics by committing to the hard cash and staff the NHS needs. After the election, for the sake of patient safety, the government must scrap the cap on nurses’ pay and help to fill the 40,000 vacant jobs.”

(Top image: Almost 400,000 NHS staff, including paramedics, nurses, midwives and hospital managers, go on strike in 2014, c. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

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