Next month, NHS midwives across England will vote on taking industrial action against their employers. It is the first time in the RCM's 133-year history that we have asked our members to do this. It is not something we take lightly, but midwives and maternity support workers are at breaking point.
Our dispute with employers is about pay. Midwives' pay was frozen in 2011. It was frozen again in 2012. In 2013, it rose by just one per cent.
This year the independent pay review body recommended another one per cent pay rise for all midwives, nurses and other non-medical NHS staff. This was rejected. Instead, only staff at the top of their pay scale will get one per cent, with pay scales frozen for everyone else. And even that rise will be temporary. In 2016 it will be cancelled, with pay dropping back down. It's hard to believe but midwives' pay is scheduled to be cut two years from now.
If a typical midwife's pay had risen in line with inflation since 2010 they would today be paid over £4,000 more than they are actually getting. That much money is enough to pay three years' worth of household energy bills. Midwives and maternity support workers (MSWs) have lost out and now face another year of working out whether there is anything left to cut from their household budget.
NHS maternity services in England have been struggling for years to cope with a deep and enduring shortage of midwives. Staff have had to work flat out, often staying late and working large amounts of unpaid overtime, as they try their hardest to give women the best possible care they can. After years of stress, pressure and overwork, being told they face another year of rising bills but static pay is just too much.
We are asking for the independent pay review body's recommendation - of one per cent for all midwives - to be honoured. You read that right: we are asking for only one per cent. Is that really too much? Is it truly unaffordable?
But the most important thing that I must emphasise is that our dispute is not with the women for whom midwives and MSWs care, it is with the employers offering NHS staff so little.
I understand that talk of industrial action by midwives can sound alarming. However we are not talking about a Seventies-style walkout. Midwives and MSWs are caring people. It is what motivates them to do the work they do. It's what motivates them to work long, unpaid overtime to paper over the cracks in our under-resourced, overstretched maternity services.
If midwives and MSWs vote for industrial action, pregnant women needing care will receive it. Full stop. A woman in labour, for example, will not notice any change at all. Safety comes first, always. What might happen is that, say, antenatal classes might be rescheduled during any stoppage.
All midwives and maternity support workers are asking for is fair pay from their employers. They have taken years of pay restraint. They face years more. Enough's enough. I hope you'll support them. After all, is a one per cent pay rise really too much for all the work they do?