RCN strikes earlier this year saw big pickets (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Leaders of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) called off strikes planned for the beginning of March on Tuesday in order to enter “a process of intensive talks” with the Tories.

It’s a wrong move. It comes just as junior doctors have voted for action, and ambulance workers are intensifying their action. The right action is uniting and extending the strikes, not strangling them.

The government has offered nothing in return for the suspension of strikes. Its joint statement with the RCN leaders said, “It says: “Both sides are committed to finding a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role that nurses and nursing play in the National Health Service and the wider economic pressures facing the United Kingdom and the Prime Minister’s priority to halve inflation. The talks will focus on pay, terms and conditions, and productivity-enhancing reforms.”

As so often, it’s hard to start a strike, but it’s easy to call one off. RCN leaders did not consult the full membership over the move.

An RCN member told Socialist Worker, “This feels very undemocratic. The Tories are not to be trusted. This has been evidenced by their conduct over the last 13 years. I feel the RCNs decision to suspend strikes is naive.”

Really? Productivity? The Tories’ definition of cutting inflation—which is about holding down wages rather than tacking profiteering?

It sounds terribly similar to the strategy carried through by rail and Royal Mail bosses who offered talks, had the union leaders call off strikes, and then offered nothing to the unions except further assaults.

Another NHS worker says, “I think it’s weak to suspend strikes now. We need to pursue the strikes at least until we receive an offer. The government is purposely delaying and disrupting our action.”

The government’s intent was shown by another development on Tuesday. Ministers submitted their evidence to the “independent”—for which read complicit—NHS pay review body for the pay rise due to come in in April. The submission says they are prepared to offer only a 3.5 percent pay rise.

Maybe ministers will offer some tiny improvement to the present offer over two years. They won’t go anywhere near the rise that NHS workers—and the health service itself—need unless there is a much higher level of struggle.

And there’s also the danger of separate deal for nurses that leaves others abandoned. A nurse listening to an RCN Zoom call on Tuesday evening said, “There’s talk of a nurse-specific clause in Agenda for Change pay agreements, similar to a London enhancement but for certain professionals.

“They are dividing and ruling us. RCN leader Pat Cullen is falling for it hook line and sinker.”

The GMB union reacted with anger to the government’s move. Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said, “Today’s submission to the PRB shows this government’s true colours. Ambulance workers and others across the NHS including cleaners, porters and care workers, who are the backbone of the health service deserve better.

“Ministers have no intention of recognising the true value of the entire workforce. It’s a disgrace and will do nothing to end GMB’s NHS and ambulance strikes.

“This backroom deal with some sections of the workforce is a tawdry example of ministers playing divide and rule politics with people’s lives.”

A united NHS strike would be immensely powerful and cause the government a political crisis. Rishi Sunak and his crew have now avoided that, at least for a while.

There’s a problem with the strike movement. This week both the UCU and RCN leaders have called off action for nothing. The government has now also offered talks to teacher unions—there must be no move to call off the NEU union’s strikes.

Building rank and file networks to stop sell-outs and develop structures for independent action is more important than ever.

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