NHS union members step up campaign to reject ‘paltry’ pay deal

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Members of Britain’s biggest health unions are organising a campaign to reject the pay agreement being recommended by union leaders, in a move that threatens to destroy the tentative truce between the government and NHS staff.

A cross-union group called NHS Workers Say No has sent out thousands of leaflets, held online calls and started WhatsApp networks in an effort to persuade members to vote against the 5% increase hammered out during months of talks.

Many are furious that union chiefs agreed to an increase that is well below the UK’s rate of inflation, and are willing to go back on strike to push for a better one. Campaigners believe the vote is likely to be on a knife-edge, and if they win, nurses could go back out on strike just as the country heads towards a crucial set of local elections.

Ministers and union negotiators finally came to an agreement last week after weeks of talks and several months of industrial action.

Under the terms of the deal, members of six unions, including the Royal College of Nursing, will receive a one-off 2% salary uplift and 4% Covid recovery bonus for the current year, and then a permanent 5% pay rise from April.

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Harry Eccles, a clinical nurse specialist working on the south coast, is one of those behind the movement. He said: “It’s an insulting offer. It goes nowhere near what we set out to achieve.

“The job for nurses like me is to speak to our colleagues across the United Kingdom, across different unions to say we need to reject this.”

The Cabinet Office minister, Oliver Dowden, said on Friday that finding the money for the settlement would be “challenging”, admitting that some may have to come from the NHS budget – though he said frontline services would be protected.

Union leaders welcomed the agreement, calling it a victory given that ministers spent months saying they would not negotiate on pay at all. But many members are angry that it falls far short of the 19% they were demanding.

On Friday, NHS Workers Say No sent out a two-page leaflet to thousands of members of Unite, Unison, the GMB and RCN, arguing: “Make no mistake – it was strike action that got the unions in the room with the government, and it is strike action that will deliver full pay restoration.”

The group, which is a loose affiliation of union members from the main health unions, was established in 2020 to push for better pay terms and working conditions. It now has about 90,000 Facebook members and 30,000 Twitter followers. Members will roll out the campaign at hospitals across the country this week.

RCN members are some of the most active in the group, and are also seen as the most likely to reject the pay deal given they were the first nursing union to go out on strike.

Many of their most dedicated activists appear to be against the deal, which is likely to cause headaches for union leaders hoping to sell it to rank-and-file members. There is also precedent in Wales, where RCN nurses have already voted against a negotiated pay settlement, and in Scotland, where GMB members have done the same.

NHS Workers Say No also helped organise an online call on Friday, which was joined by hundreds of NHS staff, almost all of whom were opposed to the deal, according to those who attended.

Separately, Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s director for England, held an all-staff call to discuss the deal. About 20 people spoke during that call, according to one person on it. Only two or three were in favour of the deal; the rest were opposed.

Members are referring to the campaign unofficially as “Vote Reject” and are planning to hold in-person lobbying events over the coming weeks. Eccles said: “It’s important all the unions reject this. There is a lot of frustration because our strike campaign got off to such a strong start.”

Two RCN activists are also circulating a petition to hold a vote of no confidence in the union’s leaders, including Pat Cullen, the chief executive.

In a statement on Friday, NHS Workers Say No urged union members to vote against the package, saying: “A bigger strike mandate from a bigger portion of the workforce would shift the government even further.”

Louise, an RCN member in Sheffield who did not want to give her full name, said: “Our strike mandate was for 19%. We’ve had three weeks of negotiation with no contact from those at the table and they’ve come back with 5% – it’s a drop in the ocean.”

She added: “We’re all angry at this paltry offer – I’ve not spoken to one person who likes it.”

Emma, a clinical nurse specialist in the north of England who also did not want to be fully identified, said: “People feel really let down. The decision to strike was really difficult to take, and to find that we put ourselves through that to come away with this is really disheartening.”

If the pay deals are voted down, it would be a heavy blow for the government, which is hoping to use this agreement to persuade other unions to accept similar terms. Ministers will talk to representatives of the British Medical Association this week in an attempt to bring an end to strikes by junior doctors.

A no vote would also damage the credibility of union leaders however.

The RCN said: “Members will vote in the ballot that opens soon and that is the best way for them to tell government and the college how they feel about this pay offer. This democratic process is extremely important to us and we always committed to giving members a vote on the government’s final offer. All NHS staff can see what they would personally gain from the deal and vote accordingly.”

Additional reporting by Aubrey Allegretti