When nurses fought back

As nurses prepare to ballot for industrial action, and start to gain confidence, here is a look at when nurses in Britain were militant. They went on strike, organised wildcat strikes, sit-ins, occupations, and worked to rule, and they won!

Submitted by working class … on November 28, 2011

Following last week’s post on the need for nurses to take industrial action, I decided to look into whether British nurses had ever displayed any degree of industrial militancy. The internet is full of examples from other countries where nurses regularly go on strike, and have done for many years. However, on first glance, this has not been the case in the UK. A second glance I discovered otherwise. Whilst they are nowhere near as militant as other sectors of employment, nurses in the UK have a long history of demonstrating, taking strike action, working to rule, wildcat strikes, and hospital occupations.

I cannot speak for nurses abroad, but for the last two decades British nurses have been hamstrung by their professional body (NMC), and its predecessors. Nurses generally feel that the moment they step out of line, or do anything that theoretically deviates from their code of professional conduct, that they will be reported to the NMC, struck off the register and lose their careers. This is a paranoia that runs through nursing in this country, and is perpetuated by employers and by the government.

Well over 90% of unionised nurses are with the RCN and with UNISON. The RCN has a long history of not doing very much in respect of taking any action. However they ditched their no strike policy in 1995 and have been close on a couple of occasions to balloting for industrial action. Their aim to ballot in January 2012 is a welcome step in the right direction. UNISON has always been more active, following on from one of the unions that amalgamated to form UNISON, COHSE. COHSE were involved in many campaigns against the government, mainly on issues relating to pay and grading. The following are examples of campaigns that nurses have been involved in over the years. I am sure that there are many more, but these were the examples that I came across relatively easily.

Thousands of nurses marched from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in a protest over pay, in Britain’s ever demonstration by healthcare staff. This was the first demonstration by nurses for fourteen years. The last one was by student nurses who marched in masks due to fear of retribution and bullying by employers. The nurses in 1962 were different, they proudly marched mask free and in their uniforms. In support of the nurse’s pay claim, many industrial workers took unofficial strike action in sympathy. They included 37,000 workers at the Ford Plant in Dagenham, docker’s, and drivers.

Nurses organised a sit-in at Cane Hill Hospital for three days. The action was part of a demand for more staffing on the mental health unit. A strike vote was narrowly beaten, however the nurses, decided to take alternative forms of action. Patients were cared for, however many other duties that the nurses would normally have undertaken were not done.

In the first two years of the decade, the number of unionised nurses in the Isle of Man, more than doubled. In response to Victorian working conditions, pay, and staffing, nurses imposed an indefinite ban on undertaking non-nursing duties. Also in 1982, there was a National Health Service day of action with 120,000 workers marching at various locations around the country. Many of these marchers were nurses.

The government announced that Hays Cottage Hospital was due to close permanently close at Christmas. Following the usual campaign of petitions, negotiations etc. The nurses decided to take direct action. On the 25th October 1983, nurses occupied the hospital. The support from the public was fantastic, with many letters of support, and supplies being sent in. The nurses issued a statement saying that they would resist any attempts to remove patients from the hospital in the run up to its closure. Following the occupation (which lasted months), and the publicity it generated, the local health authority cancelled its closure plans. Hays Cottage Hospital again faced attack in 1990 when the local health authority announced plans to privatise the hospital. This again resulted in an occupation by the nurses.

Nurses went on strike in 1988 over pay and proposed changes to the NHS. Only a small percentage of balloted nurses chose to strike. In the end, 2,500 nurses across 42 hospitals went on strike. In Manchester a group of nurses and healthcare assistants staged a wildcat strike during a nightshift. This was in response to the government proposing to snatch away elements of their pay. Following the strike, the government capitulated and scrapped their plans. The need for a ‘wildcat strike’ was due to the strikers knowing that any planned action would have been blocked by trade union bureaucrats. The 1988 strikes were supported by other sectors. Vauxhall workers in Merseyside called sympathy strikes, as did miners in Frickley.

During the strike there was numerous nasty newspaper headlines about the nurses, however, the opinion of the general public was firmly behind the nurses and their cause.

“In early 1988 the nurses of Britain's National Health Service reached a peak of frustration. They took unprecedented industrial action to bring the state of nursing, and problems within the Health Service, to the attention of the nation. Throughout the crisis there was acrimonious debate between the Royal College of Nursing, which acts as both a professional association and a negotiating unit and opposed the strike, and the trade unions, which organized it. Their conflict undermined the nurses' solidarity and highlighted deep and complex tensions within the profession. On the day of action, labour withdrawal was widespread but inconsistent. In the end, the nurses made some gains, but most of their concerns were ignored. The government promoted the divisions between nursing unions; the media were critical of the nurses' actions; however, the labour movement supported them, and the British Medical Journal voiced the merits of the nurses' case. The struggle of the British nurses exemplifies issues and dilemmas facing nurses throughout the world. The increasing militancy of nurses in many countries reflects their dissatisfaction with pay, working conditions, and career opportunities. Many nurses are torn between the ideals of professionalism and the realities of their workplace and are ambivalent about the principles of collective bargaining. This article addresses these ambivalences and stresses the need to find creative solutions to match nurses' unique place in the political economy of health care.”

A ward sister explained that “this action is not only, or even primarily, about pay. Nurses are extremely angry and bitter about the state of the NHS and frustrated they cannot deliver the care their patients need. They are fed up with closures of wards and cuts in services, with staff shortages, with moral blackmail and exploitation, underfunding of pay awards, and the governments declared intention cutting taxes rather than increasing health service funding. Nurses are incensed by Margaret Thatcher’s comments that it is nurses who are guilty of ruining the NHS”.

Forty nurses at Kings College Hospital in London went on strike. This was in response to rumours that the Accident and Emergency Unit was about to close.

Another example of nursing’s former militancy is that in the early 1980’s, two groups emerged. The radical nurses groups, and the association of radical midwives. I cannot find anything resembling these groups currently in existence. This further highlights the disparity between the nurses age of relative militancy, and todays subservience. What is striking (pardon the pun) when you read about the above examples of nurses taking action, is that they achieve victories, including defeating Thatcher in 1988, and contributing to the sacking of the health minister.

Nursing has forgotten about its history of fighting for fair pay and conditions, fighting for their patients, and fighting to defend the NHS. Nurses do not always realise it, but they have similar industrial might to what the miner’s and other essential workers once had. They really are the key to the Health & Social Care Bill. It cannot go ahead if nurses wake up!

Armchair militancy amongst rank and file nurses is rife. I know this because I was one for many years. The problem is (as it is in other sectors) is that the trade union bureaucrats are spineless, toadying, peerage chasers. Nursing leaders have been this way for a long time, and this has resulted in rank and file nurses losing their confidence, and not understanding or appreciating the strength that they have. Wake up!

If you want to read more about these actions (and others) have a look at this website. You have to dig about a bit, but it is worth it.



12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Ex-temp on November 29, 2011

This is a good article. The only problem that I can spot is that Karen Reissman wasn't reinstated, she still got sacked, so the article should probably be edited to fix that.

working class …

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by working class … on November 29, 2011


Dan Radnika

3 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Dan Radnika on April 2, 2021

A lot more needs to be said about 1982! There was more than just a "day of action"... There was a long-running campaign of strikes - completely union controlled but widely supported. The end of the campaign is described to some extent in a Worker's Playtime article ("NHS Workers Stitched Up"):

One thing which happened was the formation of a "health workers' action group" (I can't remember where exactly) which tried to get solidarity walk-outs from other workers. At one point they picketed out most of the South Yorkshire coalfield for a day!

And, as the Hayes Cottage Hospital site makes clear, there were a few occupations of "cottage hospitals" (i.e. small local hospitals). I remember participating a bit in the Wood Green hospital occupation...