With a megaphone in hand, she rants about her troops and examines their paraphernalia – flags, slogans and warm clothes. A few weeks later, 58-year-old Pat Cullen became one of the faces of a historic nurses’ strike that continues this Wednesday, February 1, in the United Kingdom: half a million Britons are being called to leave, demanding higher wages.
“We can do it. We’ll be in the history books. It’s time to change our profession.” Since the beginning of the movement, in late 2022, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), a trade union representing 450,000 health workers, has appeared on TV, filmed mobilization videos to convince her peers and the general public to take an interest in her profession. She talks about the exhaustion and degrading of her colleagues, the sexual harassment and racism that can be found in a hospital setting.
“Some of these nurses cried with me. They walked with me and showed me the food banks they were forced to use. They told me about their fears that their children would go back to school and that they could not affording to buy shoes. It was heartbreaking,” she admits to The Guardian in a portrait dedicated to her in mid-January, depicting her as a formidable negotiator.
Strike at the height of the epidemic season
Through media intervention and picket visits, this farmer’s daughter, five of her seven siblings, of whom are members of the profession, spurred their colleagues to vote for a historic strike: for the first time since the RCN was formed 106 years ago, ceased operations on December 15 and 20, when the season is favorable for hospitalizations. In the month of December alone, 30,000 surgeries and medical procedures were canceled due to the movement.
A historic strike that undermines the minimum level of service while caregivers generally refuse to let their patients down. But don’t tell Pat Cullen that the movement is in spite of the sick. “People are not dying because nurses are on strike; nurses are on strike because people are dying from lack of funds,” she answered L’Express in our question at the end of December 2022.
Since then, the move has continued and spilled over to other auctions, as evidenced by the mixed crowds seen on Wednesday. On the ground, a 41-year-old nurse claims in a calm but firm tone that austerity policies have caused nurses’ wages to fall by almost 20% in real terms in ten years. Thus, the RCN is calling for a wage increase of around 19% in the face of 10.5% inflation. What the British Ministry of Health refuses.
“I go to the end”
Pat Cullen entered the business working in mental health. Her first fight took place in a psychiatric hospital in Antrim, Northern Ireland, in 1983. She wrote to management complaining about the “heartless policy” that deprived difficult patients of personal belongings. “It was completely unfair… These people were sick… They couldn’t go without their stuff,” she recently told The Guardian. She won this battle.
Pat Cullen has always been a member of the RCN, but in 2019 she was appointed Director for Northern Ireland. For seven months, she led a nurses’ strike to raise wages. This was the first movement since the creation of the union. Since then, the nurse repeats: “When I believe in something, I go to the end.” While other sectors are on strike, the nursing movement is one of the most popular in the UK. Two other mobilization days have been announced for February 6 and 7, which will affect more hospitals.