Nurses Back Industrial Action Over Pay

The Royal College of Nursing voted overwhelmingly yesterday to take industrial action over pay throughout the NHS if the government does not back down within a month to rescind a decision to postpone part of this year’s award.

Delegates at the union’s annual conference in Harrogate voted by a 95% majority for the first nationwide action since it was founded in 1916.

The general secretary, Peter Carter, said he would seek an urgent meeting with the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, in a last ditch attempt to avoid disruption of the NHS.

In an angry emergency session at the conference, delegates said they felt betrayed by Mr Brown’s decision to withhold part of a 2.5% pay award recommended by the nurses’ and midwives’ pay review body. He let them have 1.5% this month and will pay a further 1% in November, saving the Exchequer £60m in 2007/8.

Mr Carter said he would also write to all MPs and representatives in the Scottish parliament and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, asking where they stand on nurses’ pay. Their replies will be posted on the RCN’s website and nurses throughout the UK can be expected to put heavy political pressure on any MP withholding support.

If Mr Brown does not back down plans for industrial action will be put to the RCN’s ruling council on May 16. Mr Carter said the college was not heading into a reckless strike. He did not expect nurses in a paediatric cancer ward to down tools and neglect the children in their care. But the union would be looking “for ways to hurt the government while trying to protect patients”.

RCN leaders had intended to get the conference to vote through a demand for the government to reconsider the phasing of the pay award. But for angry delegates this statement of intent was not enough.

More than 97% voted for a motion to invoke emergency procedures to “investigate what form of industrial action would be appropriate in relation to the pay award”.

John Hill, an A&E nurse from Yorkshire, said: “Gordon Brown is the chancellor for hypocrisy.” Nurses in Scotland were paid the full 2.5% for fear of upsetting them ahead of next month’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

After the vote Mr Carter was unwilling to speculate on what form industrial action might take. But at a briefing for journalists on Monday he said it might involve a work to rule, asking nurses to stop performing tasks that they are not contracted to do. He suggested it might also be possible for nurses to boycott the forms that NHS trusts complete to satisfy government targets, while still keeping rigorous notes on patients’ medical condition.

The public service union Unison is also expected to back industrial action by nurses at its annual conference next week.

The GMB union, which represents 25,000 ambulance workers, porters and other NHS auxiliary staff, said 90% supported industrial action short of a strike. Results of a consultative ballot released yesterday showed three-quarters backed stoppages of work to force the government to give the pay award in full from April 1.