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UK nurses stage second strike for inflation-busting wages

UK nurses have staged an unprecedented second strike amid an increasingly bitter fight with the government for better pay.

Up to 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) from England, Wales and Northern Ireland staged the latest one-day walkout on Tuesday after walking out last Thursday for the first time in the union’s 106-year history.

They are demanding an inflation-stopping pay rise to make up for years of pay cuts in real terms, but the government insists recession-hit Britain cannot afford anything above a 4-5 per cent raise.

“We need more money, we need more staff, we need security for patients,” said Lucy Savage, 21, on a picket outside Aintree University Hospital in the northwestern city of Liverpool.

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“We are overworked and underpaid, the NHS [National Health Service] it’s just a mess.”

Suni George, 45, said her salary has barely changed in her 17 years of working as a nurse.

“We receive a lot of taxes, so even when it seems that the annual income has increased, we don’t have more money,” he said outside the same hospital.

NHS nurses picket on strike outside Leeds General Infirmary in Leeds
NHS nurses picket on strike outside Leeds General Infirmary in Leeds [Adam Vaughan/EPA]

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said the strike “would have to have an effect on the provision of healthcare in the NHS”.

“That is, of course, the point of the strike: to cause disruption,” Hull said.

“And there will be a second day of disruption with nurses joining the pickets in England, Wales and Northern Ireland,” he added.

“It’s historic, this sequence of nurses’ strikes. They are the longest in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing and, indeed, in the history of the NHS itself, which many on the picket line say has been underfunded and underfunded for years… just like the nurses. The same people who say they have lost up to 20 percent in real terms pay with salaries that do not adjust to inflation.”

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Dave Carr, a nurse and RCN member, said the industrial action was a “last resort” attempt to get the government to change course.

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“We have been forced into a position where we can no longer deliver the [proper] level of care for our patients due to staff shortages,” Carr told Al Jazeera.

“There are 47,000 vacancies for nursing positions in the NHS,” he added, noting that the health service was unable to recruit and retain people due to low pay that had been outpaced by inflation.

“We don’t want to be on strike, but this is our last resort and the only way we think we can make sense of the government about their catastrophic policies on the NHS.”

The Royal College of Nursing on strike
Pat Cullen, head of the Royal College of Nursing union, poses with NHS nurses during a walkout in London on December 15. [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

The striking nurses are just some of the many UK public and private sector workers who are taking collective action for pay and working conditions, while grappling with a cost-of-living crisis made worse by decades of high inflation.

The UK Consumer Price Index is currently at almost 11 per cent.

Ambulance workers, including paramedics and call attendants, will go on strike on Wednesday.

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A second such strike is scheduled for December 28, while others, including postal, rail and Border Force staff, are staging walkouts over the Christmas period.

The RCN has criticized the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for refusing to discuss wages as part of stalled negotiations.

RCN chief Pat Cullen said the nurses would take broader labor action next month if the dispute was not resolved.

“If this government continues to turn its back on our nursing staff as it has done so far, it is really unfortunate, that in January we will see more hospitals involved and on strike and that means more nurses involved,” he said.

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The union also accused health secretary Steve Barclay of adopting a “macho” bargaining style during brief meetings recently.

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“RCN lawsuits are unaffordable during these difficult times and would take money from frontline services while they are still reeling from the impact of the pandemic,” Barclay said Monday.

He and other ministers have reiterated that they can only accept the recommendations of an independent wage review body.

The government-appointed body, made up of economists and human resources experts, urged an increase in healthcare wages by at least £1,400 ($1,740), on top of a 3.0 percent rise last year. .

But critics argue that it is constrained by government-imposed budget limits and that its assessment, released in July, predates current higher inflation rates.

The ministers plan to recruit 750 military personnel to drive ambulances and perform logistical functions to mitigate the effect of the attacks.

Polls indicate that most people support the nurses’ position and, to a lesser extent, other workers withdraw.

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The December YouGov poll reported by The Sunday Times showed almost two-thirds support nurses, while half support walkouts by ambulance staff.

Yet after a year of strikes on the railways, only 37 percent backed their workers amid their ongoing dispute over wages and conditions.

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