They also warned that nurses could start limited industrial action by refusing to work unpaid overtime - which currently averages five hours a week, equivalent to a total of £180m a year in lost wages.
Christine Hancock, RCN general secretary, said: "For the first time for years, nurses are prepared to stand up and be counted."
The RCN's 25-member council, all serving nurses, unanimously threw out the Government's pay plans, which would give more than half a million NHS nurses, midwives and health visitors an increase of 1 per cent plus the opportunity to negotiate 0.5 to 2 per cent at local level. The Pay Review Body award, they said, "sets nurse against nurse, trust against trust".
The RCN will now demand a meeting with the Prime Minister as part of a campaign for a Government commitment to a 3 per cent increase for all nurses and "a fair pay deal" next year. More worryingly for Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, nurses' leaders also agreed to "review the options relating to future potential industrial action".
Since it was founded in 1916, the RCN has abhorred industrial action, and for the last 30 years its Rule 12 pledged no strikes. The rule was last reviewed in 1988, when nurses voted overwhelmingly for its retention.
But RCN leaders who met in London yesterday believe that the mood has changed. Ms Hancock read out a letter from a sister with 20 years' experience in charge of an intensive care unit. She said she was so incensed and appalled that she would willingly strike and so would her colleagues.
The RCN negotiates for 300,000 qualified nurses; Unison, the TUC-affiliated public services union which represents a further 240,000 nurses and auxiliary workers, will decide on Tuesday whether to ballot on industrial action.
Under the Government's pay offer, staff nurses get an increase of £115 a year to £11,435 while sisters, currently on £13,640 a year, will get £13,770.
The NHS director of human resources, Ken Jarrold, said: "The independent review body has said that it expects nurses to receive pay increases in the range of 1.5 to 3 per cent as a result of local negotiation. The Government endorses that conclusion.
"£1.3bn extra will be provided in 1995-6. I hope the RCN action will be constructive. The way is open through negotiation at local level to secure pay increases for their members which are fair to them, affordable to the NHS and which ensure that patient care continues to improve."Reuse content