The privatisation of the NHS, dismantling of the welfare state, and attacks on terms and conditions mean that nurses are facing the biggest battle in their history. The time for negotiation has finished. So what are you going to do?
I recall vividly a conversation with a colleague several years ago. The discussion was about job cuts, unsafe staffing levels, and pay. She said to me, “You are a nurse, you should never strike”. Industrial action of any description was not on the cards, it was just a general chat. That statement has stuck with me ever since, and with the upcoming public sector strikes, the issues of nurses and industrial action is now back on the agenda.
I will be on strike on the 30th, but not as a nurse as. I left clinical practice to work in nurse education earlier this year. However, I will always be a nurse first and foremost. After recently speaking to friends and former colleagues, it is clear that the same old debates about striking and industrial action are being discussed.
The RCN which represents the bulk of registered nurses in the UK (400,000) has stated that it will ballot for industrial action in January if the government does not back down on its pension reforms. The RCN has many qualities, it has other roles than just being a trade union, and does a very good job. However, as a trade union it is generally weak, and about as un-militant as you can get. To be fair though, it never claims to be anything else. It has enjoyed comfortable relationships with governments, and its membership is seen as less militant that the nurses who are with UNISON.
This will be the first time in its history that they will have balloted for industrial action, and judging by debate within the media between the government and the RCN, there is definitely a souring of the relationship, which can only be a good thing. The government will not back down, so when the ballot goes ahead, I am absolutely positive that they will vote for strike action. The result may be closer than other unions, but I am confident it will be passed.
What does this then mean for nurses, patients, and the government? The first issue takes me back to my colleagues comment about not striking. Why shouldn’t nurses strike? Well, “our first priority should be our patients”. I agree, however, what are nurses supposed to do when employers and governments do not provide adequate staffing or funding, or close services that are desperately needed, or make attempts to privatise the NHS? Negotiation can only go so far. To be completely passive is not in the interest of any patient who requires service that is closing. No one is suggesting that NHS be completely shut down. Nurses would provide a skeleton service during a strike. They would not leave people at risk of harm. I say this not just as a nurse, but as a human being.
Clearly striking is not the only type of action available, and there other just as effective actions that could be taken. The NHS is a huge paper based bureaucracy, with paperwork for everything. It also relies on the constant goodwill of nurses, working through breaks, staying behind to support busy colleagues (unpaid). Nurses could withdraw their unpaid labour, and refused to complete anything but paperwork specifically relating to patient care, they could generally work to rule. I have never met a nurse’s who does not carry out work that is not within their job description. So striking is not the only option, but whatever action is taken, patients would not be left at risk.
The moral argument of nurses not striking does not hold any water for me. In fact, I would argue that it is immoral not to take action, when an employer or government are implementing changes that will have a negative impact on patient care.
The next argument that is thrown up is, “what about the public perception of nurses”. And what about, “upholding the reputation of the profession”? I would refer anyone using this argument to the last paragraph. It is not as if nurses go on strike in this country very often is it? There has to be a line that when it is crossed, nurses should say, ‘enough is enough’. I always remember many nurses saying, I wouldn’t strike for pay, but if they ever went after my pension I definitely would. Well guess what?
With regards to the public perception of nurse’s striking, I would argue that the vast majority of the public would support them. I feel that the public are aware that nurses are not repeat strikers, and would possibly take the attitude that things must be bad if nurses strike. Furthermore, the public pressure that a government would face would increase if nurses’ took action, possibly shortening the duration of any dispute.
What made me so angry was the NMC (Nursing and Midwifery Council) the governing professional body for nurses, making a statement last month, stating that “any nurse who went on strike would be in violation of the professional code of conduct” and would possibly struck of the register and lose their career. This was a disgraceful stance to take, no doubt pressured by the government to make those comments. They quickly changed that statement following uproar amongst nurses. They anticipated many people caving in due to the threat of a fitness to practice panel, but it had the opposite effect, nurses became angrier.
For me, the old arguments of nurses and industrial action are just that, old. My patients are my first priority, and the action that is sometimes needed to effectively care and treat someone, stretches beyond providing nursing care. I cannot provide sufficient care if a I have fewer colleagues than needed, or if the service I work for closes, or if we cannot recruit nurses because no one wants to train anymore, or if the government refuse to fund certain treatments, or if the government sells of the NHS, or allows the market to break it up. If nurses genuinely want to make the patient their first priority they should bloody well stand up for what is right, and not swallow the nonsense that has kept nurses subservient for the past century.
Everything I have said is not based on the fact that I am an anarcho-syndicalist or indeed political in any way. It is based on having a desire to provide the care and treatment that I believe should be provided. It is about time nurses fought back. They are far and away the biggest staff group within the NHS and healthcare, and their potential influence and impact cannot be underestimated. They are a sleeping giant that needs to wake, and quickly. If they do not, they will one day wake to find the NHS renamed ABC healthcare, and they will no longer be able to provide effective care, or make patients their first priority. Their first priority will then be £ sign!
Another thing the nurse who I mentioned earlier said to me was, “what would Florence Nightingale say about it all”. Well, I never met her, as she was a bit before my time. However, with what I know about her I suspect she would have said something along the lines of, “If you want to make patients your first priority you cannot allow the government to sell off the NHS, and you cannot allow them to dismantle the public sector or welfare state. Negotiation has been tried and failed. It is time to get around your workplaces, and organise!!!!!”