It was not until 2019 that RCN members first voted to take strike action during a dispute in Northern Ireland.
This means that its decision to ballot members in Scotland over industrial action cannot be dismissed as a union doing what unions usually do.
Julie Lamberth, who chairs the RCN Scotland board, said after the 18-month pandemic and “a decade of being undervalued and under-resourced”, many nurses were saying “enough is enough”. “The Scottish government and NHS employers… need to take very seriously our concerns about what's happening now and what will happen in the future without effective action. We want to see effective measures to stop experienced staff walking away from their jobs and a fair pay award...”
The Scottish government has offered a four per cent rise, but the RCN is seeking 12.5 per cent, a considerable rise and one that politicians will fear may lead to similar claims from other public sector unions.
However, balanced against that concern are warnings from people like Wilma Brown, NHS Fife’s employee director, who recently said: “We can’t continue in the vein that we are or we won’t have any staff left. People... are absolutely exhausted – they are just broken.”
A poll carried out in April found more than half of Scotland’s nurses had considered leaving their job in the past year.
While the number of nurses and midwives has increased by five per cent over the past year, there were also vacancies accounting for 5.6 per cent of the workforce, according to the NHS Scotland Workforce report in June. So recruiting more full-time staff should help save some of the £236 million spent on nursing and midwifery agency and bank staff last year in Scotland.
A career in nursing has never been simply about the money; although senior nurses can earn salaries well over £40,000, others receive about half that.
The government’s task is to ensure wages are high enough to attract enough people to do this difficult and stressful job. But ensuring nurses are given enough time to do their jobs properly – potentially a matter of life or death for any one of us – may require more fundamental reform.