However, when a union like the Royal College of Nursing votes for industrial action – for the first time in its 106-year history – that should make us pause for thought. It can in no way be described as “militant”.
Indeed, many of its members will have joined, in preference to other nursing unions, precisely because this was a union that never went on strike. And this is a profession motivated, not by money, but a desire to help people who are sick or in pain.
However, Pat Cullen, the RCN’s general secretary, said nurses had simply had enough. “Our members will no longer tolerate a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work. Ministers must look in the mirror and ask how long they will put nursing staff through this,” she said. She stressed the planned action was “as much for patients as it is for nurses”, saying standards were “falling too low”.
In addition to pay, one complaint is that vacancies are not being filled, increasing the pressure on the remaining staff. Recruitment problems are linked to pay and conditions, but it also must be recognised that staff shortages are one of the many harmful effects of Brexit. The vote to leave the EU was, for some, a shot in the dark in the hope of change for the better after years of austerity, but it has just made things worse.
The vast profits being made by energy companies on the back of soaring gas and electricity bills that are pushing millions to the financial brink just add to the sense of unfairness, fuelling anger at the gap between rich and poor, many of whom do the difficult, stressful jobs most of us would prefer to avoid.
If not addressed, the situation risks building towards a dangerous breakdown in the social contract, and this will not be fixed by a slightly improved pay offer here and there. Politicians need to realise it is more systemic than that. Not long after the public took to their doorsteps to applaud nurses and other health staff, the RCN’s vote for strike action is a historic moment – and it requires a historic response.