by Helen O’Connor
Morning Star | May 12, 2020
PRIOR to becoming a trade union officer, I was a nurse working on the front lines of the NHS for 28 years.
Many in my cohort in 1990 were migrant women, mostly Irish, just like me.
In those days the registered general nurse (RGN) was a three-year apprenticeship where you earned your stripes through hard work on a variety of in-patient wards.
As an 18-year-old student nurse I found myself low in the ward pecking order and I was the one emptying and scrubbing the bedpans, doing the patients’ washes and lifting patients who were sometimes three times bigger than me.
I remember the many hours I stayed on, working after my shift to help out, the long days, sometimes not getting a break, and the moral pressure and the expectation that you keep on going because that was what nurses do — it was as simple as that.
I was lucky, in the sense that during the years that followed, I had stable employment in a variety of interesting jobs in the NHS, but it was when I first became a nurse trade union rep that I finally found my voice.
Becoming a GMB union rep was the best thing I ever did, because it enhanced my understanding of what was going on behind the scenes in the NHS, and I gained a better education as a result.
The vast majority of nurses I worked with down through the years were genuinely altruistic and willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure that their patients received the very best support and care.
Nurses will put their patients before any other personal consideration. Nurses will tell you themselves that this is what they signed up for and that signing on to be a nurse is more than just a job.
The work ethic and nursing values are highly commendable and can only be widely admired, but the seemingly endless goodwill of nurses is open to exploitation too, and endless sacrifice and goodwill poses threat to nurses’ lives during this pandemic.
The management of the NHS has changed, and nurses now find that NHS trusts are managed by those who have never been nurses themselves, and this limits clinical understanding.
This has been borne out in the delays and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic that has proved fatal for too many of our nurses.
Cost-cutting and penny-pinching have become the order of the day when it comes to the NHS front line and the health and wellbeing of hard-working nurses being put at risk like never before.
Never in the 28 years I was a nurse was I expected to put my life on the line to look after patients. This is the direction of travel in the NHS during this pandemic, as our nurses struggle to look after Covid-19-positive patients with PPE supplies dwindling.
Worse still, nurses are being threatened with disciplinary action if they dare to speak out about the threat to their own lives. If you are an NHS nurse in the modern age, it is highly unlikely you will have senior NHS trust management looking out for your health and wellbeing. As nurses face Covid-19 with limited PPE, most NHS managers remain silent or claim there there is “plenty of PPE.”
In spite of years of hard work and tireless dedication, nurses have seen their pay enhancements taken away, their overtime replaced by far cheaper bank shifts, and the value of their pay drop by more than 12 per cent by 2017.
Nurses have suffered from service cuts and restructures, “down-bandings” and attempts to de-skill them.
The exploitation of nurses has accelerated at pace as there too many nurses in the NHS who are not properly organised and active within a trade union and many more who have not ever thought of joining a trade union.
On International Nurses Day 2020 it is more important than ever to thank nurses for the priceless contribution they are making to society in order to get us all through this coronavirus pandemic.
It is important to recognise that the goodwill of nurses must not be taken advantage of and that nurses need looking after too, and every effort must be put into keeping them safe as they work. Nurses who are stressed, exhausted and pushed to breaking point cannot give the very best care to patients.
As experienced nurses die during this pandemic, they are lost to our NHS forever. Nurses’ safety, nurses’ rights and nurses’ working conditions must be protected like never before, and no union works harder than GMB to put NHS nurses first.
GMB was the only NHS trade union to oppose the last —woefully inadequate — three-year NHS pay deal, and we are leading the charge to get vital PPE into the hospitals.
As this global pandemic rages on, every nurse in Britain should not only join a trade union but become active in one too, as their lives now literally depend on it.
Helen O’Connor is a GMB regional organiser.