The historic vote by Royal College of Nurses (RCN) members to reject the government’s inadequate pay offer represents a tremendous victory for rank-and-file union members. It is a massive blow for the Tories – one that threatens to undermine their entire strategy for dealing with the strike wave. Sunak and Barclay thought that they could ram through a poor but slightly improved NHS deal, using it to divide workers and break up the action. They wanted to leave those still striking increasingly isolated. They have failed.
The Tories’ strike strategy relied on the collusion of right-wing union leaders in the NHS who they hoped would be able to force through this deal with the minimum of democratic input by union members. Leaders or officials in RCN, Unison and GMB obligingly attempted to play their part. So the RCN result is also a stunning rebuke to all the NHS union leaders who have so eagerly attempted to sell workers short. Nurses in the traditionally conservative RCN organised themselves semi-spontaneously to push back against this deal. They faced down shameful intimidation by an increasingly desperate leadership. It is even alleged that some at the top of the union went so far as to call the police on nurses campaigning to reject the deal!
Now, the rank-and-file workers who have fought back against this attempt to call off the action must get organised across the RCN, as well as in all other NHS unions. What’s needed is a programme of escalating action based on maximum coordination across the health service, especially the junior doctors, as well as with workers striking back more widely. The work undertaken by the grassroots network NHS Workers Say No, which pumped out very effective messaging throughout the ballot period, appears to have played an important role in securing this result. The campaign could take a lead in pushing this momentum further by calling a national conference open to all health workers across all the unions, to discuss the way forward for the disputes and how to change the unions.
Any RCN leader who, despite this result, lacks the willingness to lead the fight that’s needed should immediately step aside and allow their position to be filled by someone who will. RCN members should use the upcoming RCN Conference to submit demands for no-confidence in the General Secretary and Executive, to keep the pressure on the union tops.
This week, junior doctors in England have taken an unprecedented four consecutive days of strike action. The RCN result now poses the possibility of a huge escalation of the NHS strikes, as part of a wider spring-summer offensive of the working class. The vote to reject shows the confidence and determination that has been developed by workers striking. It is a warning to the leaders of other unions who may be considering calling off action and supporting similarly poor below-inflation settlements.
The unions who are expected to have voted (albeit not necessarily convincingly) to accept this offer, are all ones in which the majority of those balloted have not had the empowering collective experience of taking strike action. Union members have instead been presented with a recommendation to accept a poor but improved offer, without any suggestion of the potential that exists to build and escalate a fight back.
But with RCN members now poised to once again take to the picket lines, the question of reballoting for action across the NHS must be posed. It is, at this stage, still not 100% clear that the government will even go ahead with paying what was agreed in this offer. In any case, the RCN’s rejection of the deal creates an entirely new scenario. It is only right that NHS workers are given the democratic opportunity to vote to join their colleagues in once again taking strike action. The momentum created by both the strikes and the reject campaign must not be squandered.
The ballot result today speaks to the reality of a generation of workers rediscovering their collective strength. It shows the potential that exists. The demand Socialist Alternative has raised for a general strike to fight the cost of living crisis and topple the Tories remains absolutely necessary. The RCN result today shows how the outlook of workers is transformed by striking. By all of us striking together, we can force the Tories out.
Socialist Alternative says:
- Return to the picket line. Fight for the full pay claim!
- Coordinate with the junior doctors and build a cross-union campaign to re-open the pay disputes across the National Health Service. We need above-inflation pay rises for this year and last!
- Oppose the police investigation into RCN members! Defend nurses against undemocratic attack!
- No confidence in the RCN leadership! The General Secretary and the Executive should immediately resign to allow fresh elections for their positions.
- For a national conference of health workers to discuss the way forward across the unions.
- For the regular election of all senior paid union officials and negotiators. For the right of recall over all elected positions!
- For socialist policies to rebuild our health service. Reverse all privatisation, nationalise the pharmaceutical companies. For a fully-funded public healthcare system under democratic control and management of health workers, patients, and wider society.