October last year witnessed the first ever strike by the Royal College of Midwives since we were founded in 1881. It was great to see fellow midwives on the picket line as they made their point loudly and clearly, but in a manner that didn't get in anyone's way and which let everyone else go about their business. They were positive and happy, despite the driving rain, with many holding up homemade signs to wave as passing drivers beeped their car horns in support.
They knew that even though they were on strike, women needing urgent and emergency maternity care were getting it because midwives had sat down with management in advance of the day to ensure that a safe service would still be running, staffed by midwives, regardless of the strike.
Those midwives were on strike that day because their employers had pushed them too far. For year after year after year, the pay of midwives, nurses and others working in the NHS had been frozen. The trigger for the strike was a stubborn refusal by the Government and hospital managers to pay even the 1 per cent pay rise recommended by the independent NHS pay review body. It comes to something when midwives have to go on strike just to secure a 1 per cent pay rise.
Midwives were not only struggling to pay their bills, they were also being pushed to the brink, stretched almost to breaking point. After trying everything else, they were forced to turn to their last resort - their right to strike. It was a decision they did not take lightly, but it was the only way they felt they could make their employers sit up and listen. And it worked. Within a short time, a fair compromise was reached, and it was the midwives' right to strike that had ensured a fair outcome for all sides.
As you can see from the experience of well over a century, the RCM is deeply reluctant to turn to strike action. We see the right to strike as something we would use only very rarely, and of course only ever if it had been explicitly supported by a majority in a ballot of members. But it is important that it is there. It is important that employees have some power to stand up to a boss who keeps pushing them around. It is wrong and just downright unfair to rig the system against people like midwives wanting to stand together when an employer treats them appallingly and refuses to listen to reason and seek a fair compromise - but with the Government's new Trade Union Bill, currently before Parliament, that is exactly what is being planned.
We live in a period of widespread industrial peace. The number of days lost to strikes across the whole economy has been lower in the last 25 years than at any other time in history. So it is surprising that an early priority for the Government, so soon after the election, is to introduce a new law to clamp down hard on the important right to strike. Under the Trade Union Bill, calling a strike would be much, much harder. Employers would, for example, be empowered to bus in agency staff to break strikes, and unions would be showered in sweeping new rules and regulations in an attempt to frighten people out of taking strike action. If this proposed new law goes through, the system will be stacked so heavily against unions like the RCM that our members' fundamental right to strike as a last resort would be to all intents and purposes swept away.
The bill seeks to tie unions down with miles of red tape about peaceful picketing. This is a gift to lawyers who must be salivating as they think about all the expensive legal cases they can start over whether an armband worn by a union official was too small, the wrong colour or was put on inside out. In our strike last year, midwives acted peacefully, fairly and positively on the picket line. The only effect of these new rules that I can see would be to frighten some of them out of taking part for fear of ending up in court as lawyers jump all over any innocent mistake.
And there is the important issue of public safety. When midwives in England and Northern Ireland went on strike, they had already sat down with employers to ensure that urgent and emergency services were covered. Our dispute was with those employers, not with the women for whom midwives care, so we ensured that those who needed maternity care during our strike action were not hit. Under the proposed new law, it will be up to employers to organise that cover, turning not to their existing staff to work out safe cover but to companies providing agency staff. These staff may well be from outside the area, with little knowledge of the maternity unit or the women who will turn up at the unit. That is not their fault, but it means the quality of care they can provide will be limited. And what protection will there be against agencies jacking up their rates for the day and shamelessly milking taxpayers for every penny they can get?
I hope the Government will listen. I hope they will think again and withdraw their plans to make the right to strike all but redundant. There is no need for it, it is unfair, and may well end up costing the taxpayer a great deal as agency staff are brought in to break strikes.
Working people like midwives should have the right, as a last resort, to take strike action if their employer pushes them to breaking point. They should have a right to draw a line in the sand and say, enough is enough. It is time for the Government to think again about this crackdown on the right to strike.