RCN's Josie Irwin: A ‘male’ style of negotiation would not have delivered a better pay deal

The all-female team representing the healthcare unions used persuasion and compromise to achieve an austerity-breaking pay offer. Critics on social media who demand an aggressive approach to win more concessions from the government are being unrealistic, says the RCN’s lead negotiator Josie Irwin

The all-female team representing the healthcare unions used persuasion and compromise to achieve an austerity-breaking pay offer. Critics on social media who demand an aggressive approach to win more concessions from the government are being unrealistic, says the RCN’s lead negotiator Josie Irwin

Josie Urwin (left) with Sara Gorton of Unison.
Picture: Barney Newman

Gender pay gaps are in the headlines and unions representing the largest predominantly female workforce in the UK are about to consult their members on the first deal to break the government’s austerity cap. It seems timely to look at the role played by women in the NHS pay deal.

Women in negotiating situations are often thought to be more reluctant to bargain and hassle. It is suggested that women tend to be more persuasive than men, and research shows that women have an inclusive, team-building leadership style in problem-solving and decision-making. There is also evidence that women negotiators are more likely to ignore rules and take risks.

The team that leads the union side on NHS pay, terms and conditions is made up entirely of women. Did this make a difference?

Looking for common ground

In 2015 the RCN took a strategic decision to work with all the other trade unions represented in the NHS to get our members out of austerity. We wanted to improve pay in the short term and for the future. We did not want to trade away important benefits such as unsocial hours payments and annual leave. We also wanted any improvements to apply across the UK, not just in England.

We were clear about the problem and how we could resolve it. Working inclusively and involving staff and members from all 14 trade unions in developing the negotiating strategy and tactics has been key to achieving the deal.

Our way of working marked a change – a focus on relationship-building and persuasion, encouraging debate rather than grandstanding, rejecting aggression and discouraging antagonism between unions as well as with the employers’ side. It was about looking for common ground.

What the deal achieves

Let’s look at what the deal achieves. It breaks the public sector pay cap and gives certainty about earnings in the run-up to Brexit and beyond. If NHS staff vote to accept, low-paid staff in the NHS would receive pay above the Living Wage for the first time and the immediate benefit of a pay rise of 11-13%. Starting salaries would be increased, helping recruitment.

Unsocial hours payments are protected, annual leave maintained and incremental progression retained. The package of pay increases and reform is funded by £4.2 billion from the Treasury, meaning employers will not have to cut jobs or services to afford the pay increases staff deserve.

The RCN’s #scrapthecap campaign was the game changer – nurses demonstrating across the country meant the government could no longer ignore the scandal of real-terms cuts in NHS pay and the impact on the nursing shortage and patient care. It took leadership and vision by a professional trade union representing a predominantly female workforce, and led by a woman, to obtain this offer.

Social media delusions

Outside of the social media bubble, nurses and healthcare assistants on the front line understand the package, even those members at the top of their band who would not receive as much as some others from the deal. They understand there needed to be something to encourage recruitment as well as retention to ease the workload pressures on them from staff shortages. It is not the best they hoped for, but they understand it is probably the best they will get.

Social media encourages simplistic, black and white positions that don’t give much scope to moderate opinions. People seem all too willing to believe and respond to Facebook or Twitter posts rather than the facts.

It is a shame that strident social media exchanges put people off expressing views that go against the trend. Gender is at work again here. Nursing staff, overwhelmingly female, seem more willing to approve compromise. Critics who advocate an aggressive rejection of the deal without a credible alternative approach may be deluded about the effectiveness of such a ‘male’ approach. They are also unrealistic.

Josie Irwin is RCN associate director employment relations and the college’s lead pay negotiator


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