No man is an island, and the same goes for trade unions. In disputes involving multiple unions the actions of one union has an impact on the position of the rest. This is why NHS trade unions representing staff on the Agenda for Change pay scale have suspended strike action and are currently in a period of ‘intensive negotiations’ with the government. Both sides will be hoping to claim the resultant deal as a victory, though the eventual settlement will probably be more of a climbdown for the government. The catalyst for these negotiations was the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) entering into negotiations, having earlier admitted that they were not really pushing for a 19% pay rise, and as a sign of good faith agreeing to suspend strike action in order to enter talks. Feeling left out, other unions including Unite – after a short-lived holdout – eventually agreed to suspend strike action as well so they could all enter talks.

In one sense, this is not particularly outrageous. The RMT suspended strike action in November to allow for negotiations with Network Rail and the government, and UCU suspended strike action in February to enter into talks with ACAS. Neither union saw these suspensions lead to a direct result (though the RMT have again suspended strike action after receiving a pay offer from Network Rail). The RCN clearly feel suspending their upcoming action is the best way to secure a positive outcome for their members. Suspensions themselves often raise questions of internal democratic accountability, but in the RCN’s case this is very much the least of their troubles when it comes to their internal culture. Following the RCN’s eager flight to negotiations, the government predictably used the RCN’s agreement to suspend strikes as a stick to beat the other unions with.

The RCN’s decision placed other unions in something of a catch-22. Acquiescing to the demand to suspend strikes risked surrendering the initiative to the government, as it buys the government time and dents the momentum of the current strikes, which can sap enthusiasm (often leading to more internal arguments in unions). But not getting in the room risked letting the RCN – which takes it standing as a professional body as well as a trade union most seriously – dictate the terms of a deal that could affect other staff on the Agenda for Change pay scale. Entering into unilateral negotiations with one health union, while ignoring that other unions represent nurses, directly undermines the positions of the other unions involved. So far, the other health unions have just about managed to keep up a united front in national negotiations if not industrial action.

It was possible that any deal agreed with the RCN, which has the most members eligible for strike action and highest public support, will be used to set the parameters for not just settlements with other health deals but settlements across the public sector. Thus, other unions could not leave the RCN unsupervised in negotiations. This has been hinted by the Department for Education now demanding that teaching unions call for strikes to be suspended in order for talks to begin. If the threat of RCN strike action was taken off the table then the other health unions would not appear as threatening. 

In fairness to the RCN, unlike other unions in the current strike wave, they have made no pretence of solidarity. RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen has always been very clear about her opposition to coordinated action. The RCN and the BMA are, after all, the only unions involved in NHS industrial action that are not affiliated to the TUC. It remains to be seen what strategy doctors will go for with the government apparently wanting to settle with the Agenda for Change unions before the BMA takes industrial action on the 13th of March. The government has no excuses whatsoever, having had several months to find an agreement with other health unions and plenty of advanced warning that doctors were also balloting.

Given the government’s maladroit handling of the strikes so far, the opportunity to widen a pre-existing divide in striking unions was probably more by chance than design. Though this does not really matter. What matters is that due to the RCN’s deliberate separation from other unions (this is after all its first national strike in England), the government has been able to pull other unions into negotiations when their preference would have been to exert further pressure on the government via further action. 

If the RCN had been left to negotiate a deal that only really worked for its members, then this would have backed the other unions into a corner; where the options would have been to accept or escalate strike action while the government position was strengthened by no longer having to worry about the RCN. The irony would have been that, because of the shared payscale, the RCN would also benefit from any improved deal secured by other health unions. This does not mean these negotiations are a capitulation, the government has already made concessions, but it does mean health unions have a weaker hand than they could, and perhaps should, have had.

Other unions being dissatisfied with this turn of events doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable (though it’s doubtful any of them would be above such behaviour in the right circumstances) but there is no point in criticising the RCN, and so far other unions have refrained from publicly doing so. In one sense, the RCN are reaping the rewards for having the best ballot result across Agenda for Change unions and it may reject the government’s offer anyway. What this turn of events shows is the importance of coalition building across the union movement. There will be activists in the RCN who, having been exposed to strike action for the first time, will become more invested in securing improvements to pay and conditions in the way more traditional trade unions do in future.  One rogue entity can affect negotiations for everyone else, but the result of these negotiations may define not just the future of the RCN, but the future of all NHS unions entirely.

Read part two of George Gulliam’s RCN report here