The details matter in nurses’ deal

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I thought Mark Thomas and Andy Ridley’s piece on the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) deal (November SR) was a good one overall. But at one point it seems to misunderstand a key aspect of the deal — one which helped get it accepted — and which highlights a key aspect of both the employers’ and union officials’ strategies on pay and conditions.

The deal did two things. It provided fairly modest pay rises for the roughly half of NHS staff who are at the top of their bands/grades. It also restructured the pay scales themselves, mainly by removing pay points or increments within each band/grade. And crucially it was agreed that staff who were due to move to a point that was deleted would automatically move to the next point above. This means that, under the deal, up to roughly half of staff who haven’t reached the tops of their bands will, depending on their position in the band, receive much higher progression/incremental increases than they would have received if no such provisions were made.

So when Andy and Mark write that the deal was mis-sold by “rolling together the pay rise with increments which would be received regardless of the pay deal”, I’m not sure this is correct. Not everyone will have received the same percentage amount, but nevertheless, after years of much lower pay movements, this was a key way of gaining acceptance of the deal from a layer of workers.

The mis-selling here appears to have arisen instead in the unions leading these people to think that they would get these rises backdated to the same due date (1 April) as those who were at the top of their bands, when in fact they will only get them on the date their increment is due, many months later in many cases.

Why was the restructuring done? It allowed officials to sell the deal by emphasising the higher progression increases as a result of restructuring. And they are also claiming that people will progress faster as a result. This might be right, simply in terms of the time taken to reach the top of each band. But it also involves reducing the costs of progression for the employers, by removing increments. This will reduce the NHS pay bill in the future and also make contracting out a more attractive prospect, since new employers of transferred staff will not have as high wage costs were the number of increments left alone. This was a key factor in the GMB’s rejection.

Why did the other union officials agree it and insist it was the only deal possible? They would probably argue that it was a price worth paying to retain a national pay structure (which is not unimportant).

The backdrop to the talks is on the one hand widespread discontent over pay, which found expression in the “Scrap the pay cap” campaign, and on the other hand attempts by some NHS trusts to break away from national bargaining — mostly on the basis that progression pay was too expensive and should be replaced with another system.

The employers are determined to avoid strikes in the NHS, but so are the top union officials (witness the lack of meaningful solidarity provided to the junior doctors when they walked out). Their strategy here was not to back their claim with warnings of industrial action if it wasn’t met. Instead they were prepared to negotiate a deal with the employers — one that, since they were negotiating from a weaker position than they might have been if they’d threatened action, inevitably involved compromises that favour the employers.

So the piece was right when it says that much more could have been won. And it’s good that it highlights the resulting row in the RCN, since it shows some scope for organisation at rank and file level.

Pete Sinclair
Bristol