Unity hopes die as union hits at RCN pay 'sell-out'

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

The Royal College of Nursing was accused of "selling out" health workers yesterday by Britain's biggest union.

In an emergency conference resolution which finally brings an end to any hope of unity among 900,000 NHS employees, the giant public service union Unison accused the college of "divisive, damaging and wholly misleading" public statements.

Senior health service officials have expressed considerable private satisfaction over the clash between Unison and thecollege.

Unison, and all other health unions apart from the RCN, are to start talks on pay with senior health management on Thursday.

The college, however, is pursuing its own talks with the Government over the offer of 1 per cent nationally and up to 3 per cent to be negotiated locally.

While the RCN welcomed a statement from Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, on pay bargaining in the NHS last week, Unison said there had been "no significant change" in management's position.

Anne Picking, chair of Unison's health executive, said Christine Hancock, general secretary of the RCN, made "Joe Stalin look like a model of democratic accountability".

While the college's leader was prepared to sign local deals, members of the college, which is not part of the TUC were as keen to fight to retain national pay as Unison members, she said.

Ms Picking told 2,000 delegates at Unison's annual conference in Brighton that the "gloves are off" in the battle with the RCN.

Ms Hancock is expected to instruct RCN officials to sign local deals as soon as 300 out of 500 NHS trusts have offered the full 3 per cent without "strings". The college believes that as soon as a "critical mass" is achieved, all trusts will fall into line, thus in effect producing a national pay increase.

Unison, however, has expressed its determination to oppose local deals and will begin balloting its 440,000 health service members on 5 July if there is no breakthrough in talks.

Ms Picking said the RCN leadership had ignored the overwhelming vote at its annual conference last month opposing local pay.

Ms Hancock's welcome of Mrs Bottomley's statement was a "fig leaf to cover their retreat," she said.

The only new element in a letter from Mrs Bottomley to the RCN was a commitment to increase allowances by the full 3 per cent, therefore taking one element out of trust-based negotiations.

A spokeswoman for the RCN rejected the accusation that the college had sold out health workers.

She said the RCN's position had been consistent since 9 February when the pay award was announced. The union was committed to achieving a 3 per cent nation-wide pay rise for all nurses.

The spokeswoman said that the college would achieve a de facto national deal through local offers. That would put the royal college in a strong position to argue the case against local pay bargaining in a submission to the nurses' pay review body in the autumn.