After two weeks of demoralising news in the NHS, will nurses finally seriously consider strike action as the only viable option?
With feelings still running high after last weeks’ 1% pay award for nurses, the RCN has, for the first time in 6 years, decided to canvas its 400,000 members to see if there is enough support to go forward and request a ballot in favour of industrial action.
Nurses just don't strike...
Strike action amongst UK nurses is unprecedented. Ballot engagement is notoriously low for voting in of new RCN council members, and strike action has always divided nurses along the lines of what is ethical and right for our patients regardless of whether it will improve our own status.
It’s just not what nurses do. Other health unions such as Unison, Unite and GMB have voted in favour and walked out, the last time in 2014 over pay, but even then, this was the first time in 30 years that industrial action had been taken.
The last time that RCN members were balloted for strike action was 2012 over the NHS pension’s row. As a result of such poor turnout; only 16% of members of which two thirds voted against industrial action; the RCN could not consider this to be a mandate in favour of pursuing further measures.
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New pension scheme means UK NHS Nurses retire at aged 68
As a result, the new pension scheme that came in in 2015 means that nurses now entering the NHS will be due to retire at the same age as the rest of the population – currently 68 but this could change depending on future government budgets.
Previous generations of nurses could retire in the old scheme at the age of 55 if they chose to. For such a physically and emotionally demanding job, the question is how many nurses will remain in hands-on care until this age?
Have we been undervalued for long enough that we're ready to strike?
Nurses are emotional hostages. We’re battered and bruised by our jobs and we care deeply about those that we look after, but like victims of habitual abuse, we drop the charges, convinced that the abuser will change or go on accepting the status quo because we value others over ourselves.
But after the strike action by junior doctors last year, could we have reached a tipping point?
I’ve heard colleagues in the past suggest that nurses could be summoned for Fitness to Practice proceedings over bringing the profession into disrepute when talking about strike action.
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What about the NMC Code of Conduct?
The RCN clarified this at Congress in 2015 and confirmed that legally, nurses are permitted to withdraw their labour as long as they continue to act in accordance to the NMC Code of Conduct.
‘All nurses on the NMC Register are required to act in accordance with the NMC Code (2015).'
The NMC does not prohibit nurses undertaking industrial action. However, the NMC does state:
‘We exist to protect the public by regulating nurses and midwives in the UK. All nurses and midwives must adhere to the Code, which outlines their responsibilities as regulated professionals. The Code does not prevent nurses and midwives from taking part in lawful industrial action but we remind them of their duty to uphold their professional standards at all times.
The Code will continue to apply in the event of industrial action.'
So are we now facing a time when nurses will strike?
After the past two weeks of one thing after another, after years of underinvestment and tapering back of services all whilst facing increasing demand, could we be facing a sea-change where we will step forward into unknown territory?