Wednesday, April 26, 2006

1974 Nurses Dispute - Hospital Worker

Steve Ludlum

Editor of Hospital Worker/NUPE Steward

MANY of the student and younger nurses now beginning to campaign on pay may not remember the great nurses revolt of 1974, so Hospital Worker has been looking back at its reports from that tremendous year to see what lessons they offer us today.

In February 1974 Hospital Worker No 7 gave no hint of the explosion about to occur. A front page article by a nurse in NALGO outlined the recruitment crisis of the time-the 30 per cent dropout rate, the RCN's stranglehold on the negotiating machinery, the pay delay, and calling for unionisation and pointing to recent successful canteen price campaigns by nurses, concluded,

Our only wav out is to organise ourselves locally into existing trade unions and use them to force changes through. If we build up our muscle over small issues we'll be in a position to take up national issues".

The same Hospital Worker gave an account of the pay position: the gradual abandonment of the 1971 25 per cent plus revaluation claim, the RCN's subsequent welcome to Heath's Phase Three in '73. when the original claim was lodged with the Pay Board (yes it's all happened before!).

Nurses Take Action

In a report by a NUPE nurse we read of a NUPE meeting at the House of Commons to launch a recruitment drive. Amazingly, the two NUPE officials
presiding admitted not knowing what the progress of the nurses' pay claim was Perhaps this was because the unions had already accepted the phase 3 offer in January without informing the members! (By the way, at this same meeting, a NUPE steward, explaining to a NUPE sponsored MP Tom Pendry, that we wouldn't seek a full-time union post until they were elected, was advised "Don't get too hung up about democracy!". (Pendry is now appropriately a Labour Whip).

But all this was small beer in the midst of a miners' strike which was soon to bring down the Heath government. Who suspected then what would be going on in a few weeks' time?

For a month later, a Hospital Worker Nurses Special reported on a terrific wave of industrial action over pay from Hammersmith, Edinburgh, Norwich, Ipswich, Mappley, Leeds, Darlington, Balham, Merton, Glasgow, Cumbernauld, Liverpool, Birmingham, Croydon, Bristol, Salford, Manchester, Maidstone, York, and Romford came reports of countless rallies, marches, pickets, short strikes, solidarity meetings, work to rules, bans on paperwork, canteen boycotts, bans on routine admissions, on agency nursing on private patients, on out patients, refusal to act up, even motorcades!

All the big towns had set up joint nurses action committees linking dozens of smaller groups in hospitals, and in
SW London this had widened into a multi-union solidarity campaign, led by Wandsworth busmen who struck in support. Hospital Worker together with the big metropolitan committees, had called

a national action groups conference to try and unite the movement and its demands. The new Labour Government wasn't offering any hope. Within weeks of coming to power, Healey had reversed election statements and declared that wages did, after all, cause inflation. And Health Minister, Barbara Castle, former leftie, had announced that the NHS would have to wait for funds as

"most of the additional wealth the country creates in the next few years is likely to be used to salvage our balance of payments situation and to increase investment".

But the warning signs of a sellout were in the air already, and Hospital Worker advised

"Any nurse can tell them that mass action in the hospitals does more to shake up the Government than any expert negotiator. Six months of spontaneous canteen boycotts by nurses started off this whole rumpus, and pushed the National Negotiators into action.

We must make them see that their negotiating strength lies in strong well-organised workers in hospitals. We're in the unions, we are the unions. Through our local organisations we must use them to put forward our demands, fight the way we want to fight and make sure any settlement comes back to us for our approval before it's agreed".

And indeed the next Hospital Worker declared "Nurses Shame the Squablers".

The RCN had issued a circular warning its members not to expect support if they were indulging in action. NUPE in the name of the Social Contract (haven't we heard it all before?) had withdrawn its official support from the nurses, and COHSE was sniping at NUPE instead of leading action. Neverthless, the action committees seized on COHSE's limited support and with NUPE and even RCN members, carried on regardless.

The National Nurses Action Groups Coordinating Committee born at the Hospital Worker Conference had called a national march in
London for July 8, eventually 10,000 strong, and was pleading with nurses to unite and appeal to other trade unionists for support— with real success. All over the country ancillary and technical staff joined stoppages etc (by now the technicians were on strike on their own account!). In West London 20 odd Engineering Shop Stewards from the Park Royal Industrial Estate descended on a bewildered Administrator at the Central Middlesex Hospital and warned him that if he victimised a single nurse he would cause a district general strike! The whole Manchester dockforce had stopped for two days in solidarity. 100,000 workers on Tyneside had struck for an hour for us, 4,000 workers at CA Parsons giant factory walked out to join a nurses' march passing the works.

Most dramatically of all perhaps, nurses picketed the pitheads at dawn in
South Wales, and the miners struck for the day!

With a steady increase in sympathy strikes taking place, Barbara Castle appointed the Halsbury Committee. The nurses answered with yet more action.
The June Hospital Worker records an even larger a list of apologies to many left out for lack of space. But many of the reports and the editorial columns were warning again of the inevitable sell out unless the mass support of local action groups could be changed into one movement in control of the union machinery.

Halsbury Report

A NUPE steward in the North East reported "The fulltime NUPE officials called a meeting of the Nurses Action Committee recently, although they are not members of it-which promptly rejected the official union policy. We feel more pressures must be exerted on the NUPE executive to bring about a speedy and successful conclusion to the nurses claim."

It was not to be. Over the summer months the action fizzled out. Though in most areas , reporting anger at the sellout, action was continuing on local issues. Indeed within a very few weeks, nurses acting in local union branches were beginning to win thousands of pounds in back acting-up pay.

In October, Halsbury reported and gave the nurses their biggest ever rise, averaging 30 per cent. But the lion's share went to the highest grades up to 55 per cent rises worth £20 a week, with only 5 per cent for the lowest grades who had done all the fighting!

A Halsbury Special Hospital Worker reported almost universal rejection of the report and some close shaves for union officials hailing it as a victory at angry mass meetings. Still the tone of all the reports suggested a determined effort to carry the spirit of the campaign into a fight to unionise nurses and fight locally, summe up by
Aberdeen nurses:

"We have seen that militancy does pay. We have realised the need for solidarity and cooperation between all Health Service Unions. To ensure this, a Joint Shop Stewards Committee has been formed for the Aberdeen Group of Hospitals and already joint action has been taken over banning private patients. We have learned that only by abandoning the idea of professionalism and becoming actively involved in the trade union movement can conditions in the health service be improved both for the workers and the

patients." '


The serious lessons of '74 are to build mass action groups in the unions to unite nurses in different unions, and unite nurses with other NHS workers-demanding from them pledges of protect ion against the victimisation which young nurses are so vulnerable to. Not to turn away from the union machine because it seems a hopeless task to control it. It's not hopeless—in '74 the nurses in NUPE's North East division were highly organised within their branches and forced Fisher to support their action to the end officially,

months after the rest of the country had been told to lay off! And the overwhelming message from '74 is this—if nurses go to other trade unionists, in other industries, the support they get is un-believable. Certainly no other group of workers can command the same solidarity, not even the miners.


Are we about to have a re-run? Again, election fever is in the air, again a new Social Contract (Concordat )has been hatched, and the unions are running for cover.

This time COHSE abandoned the ancillaries, and NUPE fought on. Again the RCN adopted its reactionary role and got out the begging bowl—but again the token action had started, again, apparently spontaneously, vigils, meetings, petitionings and small delegations to Westminster were reported with increasing frequency.

At the time of writing the most valuable lesson from '74 is that in a few weeks time anything could have mush-roomed from tiny protests now in progress. Let History repeat itself (at least the good bits!)


Hospital Worker was primarily a Socialist Workers Party (International Socialist) publication with a rather simplistic analysis. However the Nurses Action Committees were very important to the dispute (COHSE was keen enough to recruit a number of these nurses as full time officers ie Bob Quick from Chester Nurses Action Committee)