They refused to sign the largely symbolic letter of acceptance which set out the below-inflation award imposed on the the profession's pay review body for the nation's 600,000 nurses, nursing assistants and midwives.
The Royal College of Nursing said that the low award would have a 'drastic effect' on already demoralised nurses.
The Confederation of Health Service Employees, the National and Local Government Officers Associaton and the National Union of Public Employees announced a postcard campaign containing a message of protest to the Prime Minister. A series of public protests will also be organised by the unions which represent half of the nation's nursing staff.
They will now consult their members to see whether they wish to accept the rise or consider taking industrial action.
Judith Carter, the unions' lead negotiator and national officer for Cohse, desribed the award imposed by the Government on the pay review body as a 'derisory insult to Britain's half a million nurses'.
'Nurses everywhere are working under intense and growing pressure, and today's announcement will be a heavy blow since it says clearly that the Government does not value their efforts and is not prepared to treat them with fairness or justice,' she said yesterday.
Christine Hancock, general secretary of the RCN, said the Government's pay award could only damage morale at a time when Britain needed highly skilled nurses.
She said the pay rise had largely been approved on the basis that NHS nurses' jobs were safe. 'In reality nurses are being made redundant all over the country despite Department of Health research that shows that patients recover faster when they are cared for by skilled nurses.'
The RCN has just launched its own campaign aimed at protecting nurses' jobs.
The awards, which will come into effect on 1 April, mean the pay of the least experienced nursing assistant would rise from pounds 7,500 to pounds 7,615 a year.
A spokesman for the RCN said a newly-qualified staff nurse would have a pay rise of about pounds 2 a week from pounds 10,820 to pounds 10,980, and a nursing sister, responsible for the running of a ward, a rise of between pounds 4 and pounds 5 a week, from pounds 16,200 to pounds 16,445.Reuse content