Anger against the Tories on the march in London in January(Picture: Guy Smallman)

Tens of thousands of nurses in England are set to escalate their pay dispute with their first 48-hour strike at the start of next month, their RCN union has announced. The walkout will run continuously from 6am on Wednesday 1 March until the morning of Friday 3 March. 

It will involve nurses at every trust where the union has won a strike mandate. And in this round no services will be exempt, meaning the strike will involve workers in emergency departments, intensive care and cancer care for the first time. 

Nightshift nurses will also now join the action too. The RCN said it will reduce services to an “absolute minimum” and ask hospital bosses to rely on members of other unions and other clinical professions instead.

It’s a huge step up in the union’s pay fight that has so far seen Tory ministers refusing to even discuss the issue. “We need to escalate to make our voices heard,” Brenda, a long-standing nurse on the south coast of England, told Socialist Worker.

“Unlike in Scotland and Wales, the Tories in England are refusing to even talk to our union about pay. All the while we are haemorrhaging staff, especially those early in their career, because our pay is so poor.

“That’s demoralising all of us that want to provide really good care—and it’s making people really angry.”

Brenda says that the mood where she works is for more and stronger action. “Nurses here felt that the union’s derogations, which exempt some staff and departments from strikes, were stopping the strike from being effective. 

“People were coming to the picket line and saying, ‘How come there are more nurses on my ward on a strike day than there are on a normal day?’ Of course, people are worried about losing money. The loss of two day’s pay will really hit us. But our strike committee thinks we have to toughen-up the action to make an impact,” she says.

The RCN says that it will now raise strike pay from £50 to £80 a day, with the rate rising to £120 on the fourth day of action.

Health secretary Steve Barclay was quick to attack the RCN’s decision to step-up the strikes, saying it was a risk to patient safety. And health bosses said the announcement was the “most worrying escalation of the strikes yet.”

They have some nerve to accuse the union of putting lives at risk. Tory funding cuts and staff shortages already mean more than 7.2 million people are waiting to start NHS treatment, and cancer waiting times last year were the worst on record.

“Every normal working day thousands of planned hospital appointments and procedures are cancelled because there are not enough staff or beds,” says Brenda.

“What we’re seeing in the NHS is managed decline. The Tories say they are worried about the impact of our action. That’s an insult. Why aren’t they worried about what’s happening to the NHS every day of the week?”

The RCN’s decision to raise their game is a vitally important one. Every trade unionist must ensure that nurses feel the warmth of solidarity during their 48-hour strike.

There must be big trade union delegations at every nurses’ picket line and collections for the union’s strike fund. And activists must now discuss what action their workplace could take to support the RCN.

“Many nurses are starting to think of our fight as part of a wider struggle,” says Brenda. “By being on strike we’re becoming more political.”

If that feeling spreads across health workers in Britain, then the Tories will rue the day they decided to take on the nurses.

Brenda is a pseudonym.

No to Scottish sell-out 

Leaders of the nurses’ RCN in Scotland have moved to sell out the fight over pay.

The union had insisted rightly that only a pay rise of inflation plus 5 percent could stem the workforce crisis and start recovering earnings after ten years of cuts. But it has now announced an about turn.

A nurses’ ballot rejected the Scottish government’s offer of 7.5 percent for the 2022-23 pay year. But RCN leaders are recommending acceptance of just 6.5 percent for the following year. 

Not only is the offer for 2023-24 well below inflation, it leaves the question of this year’s pay settlement unresolved.

But in a bid to get a deal, RCN leaders are now massaging the figures and telling everyone that the offer is really a rise of 14 percent over two years.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” says Pauline, a nurse in the West of Scotland. “We have an active strike mandate covering this year’s pay settlement, and instead of using it our union leaders are telling us to accept this as a two-year deal. It’s appalling.” 

Pauline says the offer will do nothing to improve staff retention and the poor pay driving nurses out of the profession. “We stood up for a respectable and reasonable offer. This is not it,” she says.

The union’s recommendation has “confused and baffled” many members, says Pauline. Some are angry and say they will vote to reject the deal, but others are being tricked by the way it is being presented.

“It’s no coincidence that they announced this as first minister Nicola Sturgeon resigned. The government and the union wanted to bury the news,” she says.

“But we should turn the weakness of the SNP-led government to our advantage. We should keep fighting. The danger otherwise is that the RCN will lose members because nurses will lose faith in trade unions.”

More ambulance workers vote for strikes 

Thousands more ambulance workers have voted to strike as part of the battle over health service pay.

The Unison union announced on Friday that members at another four English ambulance services will now be able to strike in a “significant escalation” of the dispute.

The re-ballots were successful in South Central, East of England, West Midlands and East Midlands ambulance services.

Only the vote in the South East Coast service did not meet the 50 percent threshold demanded by the Tory anti-union laws. That means ambulance services in most parts of England will now be affected by future strikes.

The GMB union, which also represents ambulance workers, has announced thousands of its members will strike on Monday 20 February. GMB strikers in England are also set to be joined by those in Wales. 

That comes after news that union members rejected the Welsh government’s offer. I was an additional 1.5 percent on top of the 4 percent rise imposed by the Tories in Westminster—and a one-off payment of 1.5 percent. Ambulance workers in the Unite union in Wales have also rejected the offer.

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