The public sector strikes are looming up on us now. Only a few days to go.
For me, this has left me with massive dilemmas. Not because of any disagreement over the issues, or on the principle of striking. But because I’m a nurse.
Historically, striking is something that’s been anathema for nurses in a way that it isn’t for, say, teachers or firefighters. Nurses just don’t do it. The Royal College of Nursing – which is a professional body but takes on the functions of a trade union – has never undertaken industrial action. There are good reasons for this – nurses on a ward can’t just leave helpless patients in their beds and head out to a picket line.
Some would say though, that it’s enabled a succession of governments to treat the nursing profession the way a leaf-blower treats leaves. Some of my more militant colleagues have argued that nurses are something of a sleeping tiger. They have large numbers and – despite the regular “too posh to wash slags” opinion pieces from the Mail and Express – a considerable amount of public support. These colleagues have suggested that if only the tiger bothered to growl, then it would be heard all the way through Whitehall.
Every now and then the RCN has started, if not to growl, to give the occasional low snarl. I was actually at the RCN Congress in 2006, which was the first time they’d ever made the threat of industrial action – the press misreported it as a threat to strike, but it was actually more a suggestion of non-striking industrial action such as overtime bans. Even so, it felt like a rubicon had been crossed.
That said, not all nurses are represented by the RCN. I’m not any more, I’m a member of Unite nowadays. Others are in Unison. Those two unions do strike – and will be next Wednesday. And while nobody would suggest that nurses on wards should abandon their patients, what about those in outpatient or community services?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I do work in a community, non-emergency service. So I could join the strike, but it’s something I’m extremely uncomfortable about. My caseload may be seen as routine, but it still contains a lot of very vulnerable kids. I suspect I would spend strike day worrying about them.
On the flip side of that, I am a Unite member, and Unite have voted to strike. I’m on the left politically, and therefore I believe in collective action.
I’ve thought long and hard about what to do. In the end, I decided to go with my gut.
And this is where I suspect I’m going to get some brickbats thrown at me, because my gut told me to skip the strike and carry on seeing patients. This is not a criticism of those who are striking, and I respect their right to strike. The political side of me and the professional side of me were in conflict, but in the end it was that part of me that’s a nurse that won. At the moment I’m not ready to join a picket line, but that’s not to say I might not in the future.