Health unions’ history

Issue section: 

The report on the RCN (November SR) breaks new ground. But we have to understand its history better.

Most health unions, including the RCN, have both professional and trade union functions. Historically, the professional side came first: particularly the demand for a statutory register of practitioners (now regulated through, for example, the Health and Care Professions Council). For most, the professional side predominates.

Originally these professional bodies were not legally trade unions. Some were incorporated under a charter; most registered under the Companies Act as a “not for profit” company. This barred them from having trade union objects. In practice, particularly after the formation of the NHS in 1948, they represented and bargained for their members.

The Tories’ 1970 Industrial Relations Bill threatened this arrangement. The BMA doctors’ body persuaded the government to create a “special register”. This allowed professional bodies to legally carry out union functions (including striking) while keeping their existing corporate status. (Ten health unions are still on the special register.)

Most then applied (under a 1975 Act) for a “certificate of independence” as an independent trade union. Some education unions were also on the “special register”, and the Educational Institute of Scotland still is.

The RCN’s 454,000 members (90 percent female) make it the UK’s fourth-largest union. But it is outside the Trades Union Congress, unlike the (much smaller) unions of dietitians, radiographers, orthoptists, physiotherapists, midwives, and chiropodists and podiatrists.

Most of these have also taken industrial action. The RCN itself, almost three years ago, announced a ballot for action short of a strike on NHS pay in Northern Ireland, which was sufficient to produce a small concession.

Dave Lyddon