Striking nurses march in London on January 18, 2023.

Striking nurses march in London on January 18, 2023.

(Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

UK Nurses Strike to Save Lives and End Tory Attack on NHS

"People aren't dying because nurses are striking," said one union leader. "Nurses are striking because people are dying."

Nurses at 55 National Health Service facilities across England launched a two-day strike on Wednesday after the United Kingdom's right-wing government, led by Tory Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, refused to open formal negotiations over pay and patient safety.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) general secretary Pat Cullen called the 12-hour work stoppages on Wednesday and Thursday—which come after nurses at dozens of NHS facilities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland participated in the union's first-ever national strike in December—"a modest escalation before a sharp increase in under three weeks from now." There is a strike fund, and picket line locations can be found here.

The nearly 500,000-strong nurses' union announced earlier this week that if progress is not made by the end of January, members at 85 NHS facilities in England and Wales will walk off the job again on February 6 and February 7. RCN members in Northern Ireland are not slated to join next month's walkout. In Scotland, strike action remains paused amid ongoing negotiations.

"Rather than negotiate, Rishi Sunak has chosen strike action again."

"It is with a heavy heart that nursing staff are striking this week and again in three weeks," Cullen said Monday. "Rather than negotiate, Rishi Sunak has chosen strike action again."

On Wednesday, the registered nurse and union leader added: "People aren't dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because people are dying. That is how severe things are in the NHS and it is time the prime minister led a fight for its future."

"Today's record number of unfilled nurse jobs cannot be left to get worse," said Cullen. "Pay nursing staff fairly to turn this around and give the public the care they deserve."

A 2021 study commissioned by the RCN found that in real terms, the salaries of experienced U.K. nurses have fallen by 20% due to successive below-inflation pay bumps since 2010. The current dispute is fueled by discontent over a proposed 4-5% raise, which fails to keep pace with the soaring cost of living, up by 10.5% in 2022. RCN is seeking a 5% raise above inflation.

According to the RCN, "Low pay is pushing nursing staff out of the profession and contributing to record vacancies."

Because there are "tens of thousands of unfilled jobs," Cullen said, "patient care is suffering like never before."

As the union pointed out, the upcoming February strike dates coincide with the tenth anniversary of the final report of the Robert Francis inquiry, which documented the relationship between inadequate nurse staffing levels and higher mortality rates.

"Pay nursing staff fairly to turn this around and give the public the care they deserve."

If the U.K. government invested in better pay for nurses, it "would recoup 81% of the initial outlay in terms of higher tax receipts and savings on future recruitment and retention costs," the RCN noted, citing London Economics researchers.

"My olive branch to government—asking them to meet me halfway and begin negotiations—is still there," said Cullen. "They should grab it."

Also on Wednesday, the GMB union announced that 10,000 ambulance workers in the U.K. plan to strike on February 6, February 20, March 6, and March 20.

"Ambulance workers are angry. In their own words, 'They are done,'" said GMB national secretary Rachel Harrison. "Our message to the government is clear—talk pay now."

February 6 is set to become the first time in history that nurses and paramedics strike on the same day.

The past year has seen a surge in labor unrest across the U.K., with teachers in England and Wales voting Monday afternoon to strike on February 1, the same day 100,000 other public sector workers were already scheduled to walk off the job to demand improved pay and benefits.

The Tories further angered organized labor this week by advancing a bill that threatens to take away the right of nurses, ambulance workers, teachers, firefighters, rail workers, and others to strike.

Progressive critics argue that the Tories' proposal to fire striking public sector workers who refuse to comply with a mandatory return-to-work notice amounts to a "pay cut and forced labor bill" and would constitute a "gross violation of international law."

During a recent speech inveighing against the anti-strike legislation, left-wing Labour Party MP Zarah Sultana said that the bill is about "shifting the balance of power: weakening the power of workers and making it easier for bosses to exploit them and for the government to ignore them."

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