RCN pay strike poll: has the tipping point been reached?

As anger over the ongoing pay cap mounts, the RCN council has asked its members what they would like the organisation to do next. Nursing Standard looks at what the road to industrial action could look like.

As anger over the ongoing pay cap mounts, the RCN council has asked its members what they would like the organisation to do next. Nursing Standard looks at what the road to industrial action could look like

With the 1% pay cap set to remain for the 2017-18 pay round, the RCN is asking
its members what action they want to take. Picture: iStock

What is happening?

Nurses are being asked by the RCN if they want to consider industrial action, including going on strike, in response to low NHS pay.

The RCN council announced earlier this month that it would hold a poll in all UK countries to ask 270,000 members what action they want to take.

It follows the announcements from the governments of England, Scotland and Wales that the below-inflation 1% pay cap is set to remain for the 2017-18 pay round. Northern Ireland is yet to make an announcement.


real terms pay cut for nurses since 2010.

RCN general secretary Janet Davies said the continued cap was a 'bitter blow' for the profession.

Why a poll?

The 1% cap on nursing pay is putting patient care at risk and leaving thousands of nurses struggling financially, the RCN says.

More nursing staff than ever are leaving the profession due to pay restraint, adding to the pressure on an already overstretched workforce.

Some of those who stay are resorting to second jobs and using food banks, according to the college. Nurses are exhausted, morale is low and it's affecting the care they are able to provide.

A combination of pay freezes and pay rise caps since 2010 has effectively led to a 14% pay cut due to the rising cost of living, according to the RCN.

What are nurses being asked?

Members will be asked to respond to three questions. The first is whether they they think the government's approach to nursing pay is fair.

The second asks if they agree with taking industrial action short of a strike, such as working only contracted hours, not completing non-essential paperwork and not covering holiday or sickness absence. Finally, they will be asked if they want to take strike action in opposition to the UK government's approach to nursing pay.


RCN members polled.

The poll, which closes on Sunday 7 May, is online, and all members working in the NHS or on NHS terms and conditions will be sent an email with information on how to complete it. Those who have requested not to receive emails from the RCN will be sent a postcard with details of how to complete the poll online.

What could the results mean?

If nurses indicate an appetite for industrial action, a formal ballot would need to be held to see if members back the plan and the form it should take.

Any future ballot would need a response rate of at least 50% of members, following changes to trade union rules.

RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin says, depending on the results, there could be different approaches in different countries. For example, nurses in some countries could take industrial action, while others choose not to. Any industrial action would not compromise patient safety, she adds.

The results of the survey will be announced at RCN congress in Liverpool, which begins on 13 May.

Have nurses taken industrial action before?

Since its inception a century ago, the RCN has never balloted on industrial or strike action.

However, nurses from other unions have taken part in action. In October 2014, thousands of health workers, including nurses, midwives and ambulance staff, took part in the first strike over their pay for more than 30 years. Members of seven unions, including Unison, Unite, and the Royal College of Midwives, took part in a four-hour strike in England, and two unions took part in Northern Ireland. This was followed by four days of work to rule. All emergency care was covered during the strike.

The RCN carried out a survey of members in 2014 to see if they wanted to consider industrial action. The council decided not to take further action as the response rate was low.


pay increase for 2017-18.

The college threatened to ballot for local industrial action in the 1990s in Oxford, over patients left on trolleys, and in Northern Ireland in 2015. But as negotiations advanced, neither ballot took place.

Why is the RCN asking about strike action now?

The previous RCN nursing poll in 2014 only asked nurses if they would consider industrial action and did not ask members if they wanted to go on strike.

Ms Irwin agrees the inclusion of a specific mention of strike action is a shift for the college.

'Members are angry,' she says. 'What we are testing right now is whether the tipping point has been reached in terms of goodwill.

'For years, the NHS has got by on goodwill. Every week a nurse will work at least six extra hours on patient handover and paperwork. A lot of the frustration about pay is frustration at not being able to do the job properly. This is the first time the RCN has considered a strike and the first time we have conducted a poll across all four countries.'

Ms Irwin says that witnessing the long-running junior doctors strike last year will have had an impact on nurses' views on the issue. The heated dispute included strike action and legal reviews after junior doctors' rejected new terms and conditions. The contract is now being implemented by trusts after the doctors' union, the British Medical Association, called off further action.

'Seeing the changes to the contract that the junior doctors managed to achieve, there has been a change in mood,' Ms Irwin says.

Social media snapshot: nurses speak out 

Aimee Jenkinson: 'We nurse because it's in our bones, but they are taking advantage of our good nature and I think it's been stretched to its limits now'. (RCN Facebook)

‪Jaraden Thomas-Webb:‪ 'We're stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are well within our rights to strike for our pay and increased respect so the government understands there is no NHS without us, however that will compromise patient safety'. (RCN Facebook)

Claire John: 'None of us are comfortable with strike action because we put patients first. However our goodwill has been exploited for too long'. (RCN Facebook)

Drew Payne: 'This is disgusting! Good pay and realistic staffing levels are what make good morale, not either or'. (Twitter)

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