Solidarity with striking nurses: lawful or not, it should be “all out” on 2nd May!

Workers' Fight workplace bulletin editorials
26 April 2023

How on earth do workers actually win the pay rises they have been striking for? Some, like railway workers, have been striking on and off for almost 12 months and are nevertheless offered a cut in real pay and strings attached which are as thick as ropes! So what now?

    In fact the answer is simple: take joint, all-out action - maximum numbers, minimum time. It is, and always has been, the only effective way to fight. It would have sorted out all of these pay disputes long ago, if, that is, it had been possible for workers to override the conservative union leaderships which refused even to speak about a "general" strike!

    So now the nurses' union - the Royal College of Nursing - is faced with legal action over the 48-hour strike action it announced for 30 April to 2 May - which is next weekend.

    A strike over the Mayday bank holiday was a good choice. May 1st is International Workers' Day, after all. So this pays respect to working class internationalism, "one for all and all for one", and to the historic fight for the (so far not achieved!) 8-hour day... It's a de facto invitation to all other workers to show their solidarity!

    Of course, this was certainly not RCN leader, Pat Cullen's intention! Her outspoken concern for "her nurses" and her nurses only, has been expressed time and again. But be that as it may, the rest of the working class knows the necessity of cross-sectional action, even if she does not.

    And that certainly includes most NHS workers (not just nurses) in Unison, even if they voted by 74% (53% turnout) to accept the government's 5% pay offer, unlike 54% of RCN members who turned it down (on a 61% turnout).

Barclay's last resort

It remains to be seen whether the High Court will rule that Health Secretary, Steve Barclay's challenge to the strike is "lawful". This scissor-happy minister now wants to cut 24 hours out of the RCN's 48-hour strike, if he cannot prevent it altogether!

    Barclay claims that while he "fully supports the nurses right to strike", he just cannot allow nurses to break the law!

    So what's the nitty-gritty of this? Well, says the RCN: "Our [strike] ballot closed at midday on 2 November 2022, and we argue legal precedent indicates our mandate lasts to midnight on 2 May. NHS Employers argues it only lasts until midnight on 1 May".

    Obviously Barclay and the NHS bosses are clutching at a judicial straw. All their attempts to discredit striking nurses (and doctors) have failed; the public holds the government, given its NHS cuts and privatisation policy, in even more discredit. And so the overwhelming majority still supports the strikes. In fact they have only had a marginally worse effect on the service provided, than government policy has.

    So legal action is Barclay's last resort. And yes, the government has an armoury of complicated laws to tie up the trade unions and workers in knots, whenever they dare to exercise the so-called "rights" which they still retain, to defend their terms and conditions.

Let's cut their legal knots!

It wasn't so long ago that a vote for strike used to provide an indefinite mandate - as long as action was taken within 4-8 weeks of the ballot.

    This 6-month mandate rule came in under Cameron's Trade Union Act of 2016. And it means that strikes which don't succeed in winning workers demands quickly can get stuck in the treacle of drawn-out negotiations and repeated - as the bosses hope, ever-waning - vote-counts in the effort to keep a strike mandate "live".

    Nurses and railway workers are in fact currently in the process of renewing their unions' strike mandates. For railway workers it's already the second time round. And it's true that the numbers who vote in these postal ballots (another hoop to jump through, imposed back in the 1980s by the Tories) dwindles with time and with repetition.

    This is why it would make sense for workers to take over control of the process themselves and decide when, where and for how long - and above all, alongside whom - they are going to strike.

    Yes, that would definitely be unlawful. But so far, keeping strikes within the bounds of this anti-worker, capitalist system's "legality" just ties workers hand and foot. And when this legality is so dutifully observed by the union leaders, it can only encourage the bosses and their politicians to come up with even more of it. Which is why, even if Barclay gets his way over the 2 May nurses strike, the best response from the working class - all of us - would be to take to the picket lines and the streets...