RCN nurses on the picket line outside Guy’s hospital in London

Thousands of nurses were back on picket lines on Monday as they began two days of strikes for higher pay. The RCN nurses’ union’s action is hitting hard. But so far, the Tories have refused to budge on their insistence that pay for 2022-23 won’t be reopened.

Strikers at University College Hospital in central London were loud and lively, with pickets changing the words of pop songs to “we want better pay”.

Student nurse Victoria told Socialist Worker, “I’ve worked for the NHS for three years as a health care assistant, and now I’m a student nurse. I’ll come out of university in debt and not get paid enough to get out of it.”

There was some discussion about RCN leader Pat Cullen’s suggestion that the union could suspend strikes if the Tories made an offer of just 5.5 percent plus a one-off bonus. That is the deal that cancelled planned action in Wales this week (see below).

“We want what we have demanded, inflation plus 5 percent,” said Helena. “We are only asking for the pay we have lost in the past decade. With the cost of living crisis and inflation going up the way it is, I don’t think I can afford to accept less.”

“I think people want to keep fighting to get the pay rise we deserve, and we need any pay rise to be in line with inflation.”

There was a similarly jolly but determined mood at the nearby Great Ormond Street Hospital, where strikers were handing out tea and biscuits to keep energy levels up. Striker Caroline told Socialist Worker that nurses are striking for the “fundamentals” not just pay.

“We want to be able to do the job that we enjoy and feel like we’re making a ­difference,” she said. “We want to feel like we’re going home every day having worked to the best of our ability. But you just don’t get that ­feeling ­anymore. You just feel like you’re surviving.

“We want to have space to change at work and have a shower. Colleagues have had the wheels of their bikes stolen because there’s no security. There’s no space to park, and even if there were, nurses wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Many nurses were inspired by last Wednesday’s mass strike. But there was a debate about whether health unions should be coordinating with others.

Some said that would risk taking the focus away from the NHS. But nurse Gemma said she thinks it’s important that workers from different sectors come together. “I think we are right at the start of our strikes and need all the support we can get,” she said. “I think striking together with other groups of workers could be important.”

Caroline added that nurses won’t give up on their fight to save the NHS. “The mood is really good in our hospital,” she said. “People want to keep on fighting.”

Wales deal put strikes in peril

Union leaders called off planned strikes by nurses and ambulance workers in Wales last week. The Welsh Labour government made a miserable offer of an extra 1.5 percent on this year’s pay settlement. And they added an extra 1.5 percent on top, but for this year only.

That means total pay would rise by just 5.5 percent—with the additional 1.5 percent being snatched away again in April. Shamefully both the RCN and the big ambulance union, the GMB, rushed to suspend their strikes.

RCN leader then made matters far worse. She said that if the Westminster government came up with a similar offer, she’d suspend strikes in England too. That’s a huge concession that no serious union should be making in the heat of battle.

Every striker will tell you that 5.5 percent will do nothing to end the recruitment and retention crisis. And it will do little to help health workers trying to pay their ever-rising bills.

The moves must be a warning to all strikers that many union leaders want a way to get out of the strike. And for some, almost any deal will do.

Pickets lines across England

GMB union ambulance workers on the picket line in Weymouth (Picture: Philip Marfleet)

Ambulance workers across England in the GMB and Unite unions also struck on Monday. “This is a big day for us and people here remain really positive about the strike,” said GMB union rep Ben in Brighton.

He was scathing about any deal similar to that in Wales. “The offer of an extra 1.5 percent plus 1.5 percent unconsolidated is a cheap bribe to buy time,” he said. “We need a proper offer, both now and in the future.

“But the fact that a government has negotiated with the unions is a step in the right direction. It’s the strength of our strikes that has forced their hand.

“The government here has no strategy. They gambled that public opinion would turn against the health strikes but in fact it stayed strongly on our side. Now they are waiting for new laws to come in and restrict strikes, but that will only make people more determined.” 

Down the road at the Royal Sussex County hospital, the mood was boisterous. “The nurses united will never be defeated,” was the chant that echoed around the site.

Around 100 strikers formed a picket line at Aintree hospital in Liverpool. In Dorchester, in the south west of England, striking nurses signed a solidarity card for fellow strikers at Weymouth ambulance station.

Up to 60 nurses picketed in York, where local activists report a smaller presence than during last month’s strikes. Activists in a number of areas reported similar.

From a “slightly flat” picket line in Oxford, Unison and RCN member Ian was angry at the union’s offer to suspend strikes for a lousy offer. “Nurses won’t be satisfied with that,” he said. “My rent has just gone up by £40, and I dare not look at my energy bills.

“A tiny pay rise won’t even touch the sides of the cost of living crisis. But it does send a worrying message to members that the leaders are not fully committed.”

On the GMB union ambulance picket line in Chesterfield Socialist Worker supporter James reports, “Only two topics of conversation this morning. One—the conclusion of the BBC Happy Valley drama, which everyone loved. Two—the Welsh deal which everyone thought was shite.”

At Guy’s hospital in London RCN leader Pat Cullen faced tough questioning about her offer to suspend strikers in England if the Tory government made an offer. She was at pains to say members would have the “final say”.

Jess Austen, a striking nurse at Hastings’ Conquest Hospital, told Socialist Worker, “The RCN approach is ineffective and too polite. I’d like to see a prolonged walkout at all the trusts at the same time. We definitely want to link up with the other unions. We want to be all out together.”

Thanks to all Socialist Worker readers that have sent reports, photos and videos of today’s strikes

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