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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Nurses at war

THE Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which is actually a TUC-affiliated union, is setting up a £35 million strike fund to oppose the Tory Government’s miserable one per cent pay award to NHS staff. This is an unusually militant move by one of the less militant sections of the trade union movement. It also gives us an opportunity to look at two of the smaller or specialised trade unions representing workers in the NHS.

The RCN presently has 460,000 members of all grades, from student nurses to university professors, in the subject. In comparison, Unite claims 100,000 members and Unison “nearly half a million”.

The RCN has been in the TUC fold since 1977, but it was not always so.

The RCN was founded in 1916 as the College of Nursing Ltd, as a professional organisation and employment register with 34 members. It explicitly said it was not to be a trade union. Membership speedily rose to 2,553 by 1917 and to 13,047 in 1919, a great deal more than the snootier Royal British Nurses Association.

Acquiring a Royal Charter in 1928 it became the College of Nursing. It represented registered nurses only and for them to be given the best jobs. The present patron is Her Majesty the Queen – but it not expected that she will join any future picket lines.

When in 1935 the Trades Union Congress advocated a 48-hour working week for all hospital employees, the College opposed this and in turn was described by the TUC as being “an organisation of voluntary snobs”. To confirm this label, it acquired the Royal suffix in 1939. Two years later when the Ministry of Health guaranteed a salary for nursing students to £40 to the RCN objected, not because it was too low but because it was too high.

Apart from its normal union tasks, the RCN also provides courses for nurses and maintains the best library in Britain on the past and present on the subject. If only other unions looked after their past as well.

In recent years it hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, when in 2018 a motion of no confidence saw the resignation in the Chief Executive, General Secretary and the bulk of the ruling council when they bungled a pay deal. The present General Secretary, Dame Donna Kinnair, emerged from this debacle.

To return to the present day, the RCN’s General Secretary said it was “incredulous” that in the middle of a pandemic there was “no substantive mention of health and care services” in Chancellor Sunak’s statement.


“This budget is intended to show the path to recovery – but nursing staff won’t see one here,” she added.

“Recovery of nursing staff feels a long way down the government’s list of priorities.”

She also warned that a low pay rise would not “stave off a potential exodus of exhausted NHS nursing staff at the end of the pandemic” and that the NHS would “find safe patient care even harder to deliver”.

“Government must get staffing levels back to pre-COVID levels as a minimum, particularly in areas like intensive care where ratios were diluted to unsafe levels,” she added.

She also demanded that as nurses needed “rest and recuperation”, she called on the Government to fund “ongoing access to confidential counselling, bereavement and psychological trauma support”.

no mood

A three-year pay deal is ending in August, but unions are in no mood to listen to the Chancellor’s view that everyone should await the results of the NHS Pay Review Body.

RCN national officer Hannah Reed, who also doubles up as Secretary of the NHS group of unions, said: “Nursing staff and other NHS workers needed to hear a clear commitment from the chancellor that he’s willing to act on their call for a significant rise.

“His failure to listen leaves even more contemplating their futures and only adds to the nurse staffing crisis.”

This point was also made by Unite the union, whose Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmail warned that: “The NHS will be a pale shadow of the great COVID-fighting health service we know and love in five years’ time, if the insulting one per cent pay recommendation is not dramatically revised upwards by ministers.

“NHS staff are exhausted after a year of tireless caring for patients during the pandemic – and many are now prepared to leave the health service after a decade of pay austerity which has seen pay packets for many shrink by 19 per cent in real terms.

“The one per cent recommendation could be the last straw for many dedicated staff.

“The NHS already has an estimated 100,000 vacancies, including 40,000 nursing posts – and a massive backlog of non-COVID procedures, such as cancer treatments.”

She added that: “The Tories’ tight-fisted policy on NHS pay since 2010 will have a poisonous sting in the tail in the years to come and lead to an exodus of experienced staff that the NHS can ill-afford to lose.”

To conclude, she made a rousing call for the British public “to speak up now for the HS and additional investment in services and funding for a significant pay rise”.

The Union’s national officer for health, Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, added that said the one per cent “proposal shows an unyielding contempt by ministers for those who have done so much to care for tens of thousands of COVID-19 patients in the last year. It should not be forgotten that more than 620 health and social care staff have lost their lives to coronavirus.


“Some estimates reckon that a one per cent pay rise will be the equivalent of £3.50-a-week for the average NHS worker, which is shabby compared to how ‘friends’ of the Tory establishment have profited so greatly from the ‘fast track’ PPE contracts.”

Demanding an immediate pay rise of £3,000 per year or 15 per cent, whichever is greater, he noted that: “Even this figure won’t start to make up for the 19 per cent decrease in pay in real terms that many NHS workers have lost since the Tories came to power in 2010.”

Lincoln’s Tory MP Karl McCartney said that the RCN demand for 12.5 per cent was unrealistic and “one for the fairies”, but other Tory MPs said the one per cent was too low. One of them, Dr Dan Poulter, who has been assisting on the NHS front line, said: “For me, this is, from a moral perspective, the wrong time to be applying pay restraint.” Veteran MPs Sir Roger Gale and Andrew Percy are also amongst those to have broken ranks on the issue.