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Elections and appointments

Frequently asked questions

About our ballot on industrial action in Northern Ireland

From Wednesday 9 October 2019, the Royal College of Nursing will be balloting RCN members working in the Health and Social Care service (HSC) in Northern Ireland on industrial action - including strike action.

Here are our most frequently asked questions about the ballot and beyond.

Industrial action involves members of a trade union working together to achieve a goal by withdrawing their labour. There are two types of industrial action: strike action and action short of a strike. A union must hold a ballot before organising either form of industrial action. There is no legal right to strike in the UK, but there are certain protections in place for those taking lawful and authorised action called by the relevant union, such as protection from unfair dismissal.

You can only take part in industrial action if the relevant trade union has balloted for industrial action and achieved a majority 'yes' vote in that ballot.

Taking part in a strike action means not doing any work at all on the day (or part of the day) specified by the union. It is a well-established way of workers harnessing the power of their collective solidarity to incentivise their employer to stop doing something that will be detrimental to the workers – such as a refusal to agree to an outcome in ongoing negotiations that would be acceptable to the unions involved. The labour of its employees is one of an organisation’s most valuable assets, so if a large number withdraw their labour for even a day, it can have a major effect on the organisation’s finances and reputation. In many cases, if delivered effectively, this will prompt them to reconsider previous positions, for example around pay and conditions.

While a strike is a complete stoppage of work, action short of a strike usually affects some aspects of work, normally a refusal to perform full normal duties in some way.

This could be ‘working to rule’ which is a form of action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of their contract, and precisely follow all safety or other regulations. For example, if you usually work through your lunch break or stay an hour late because you have such a high workload, you could start observing your breaks and leaving exactly on time in accordance with your contract. If you and lots of others are consistently doing extra unpaid work out of your own good will and it suddenly stops this may have a great impact upon your employer. It could also involve not agreeing to work overtime, which can have a similar effect.

In any dispute, the RCN will communicate clearly and regularly with members so that they are fully informed as to whether they are affected and can get involved.

Yes. Any industrial action called by the RCN will ensure that patients are not put at risk, and you will never be asked to act outside your Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) Code of Conduct. The RCN will work with management to ensure there is sufficient emergency cover during any stoppage. Most industrial action in the health service is likely to use the emergency care model, when only those providing non-urgent care services are called on strike to ensure patients aren’t harmed.

The RCN is committed to the maintenance of essential services in acute and emergency situations. While responsibility for maintaining patient safety sits with the employer,  we will work constructively with managers to ensure robust contingency arrangements are in place in the event of any sort of major incident.

It is not a breach of the NMC Code of Conduct to take part in lawful industrial action and the NMC has, during previous disputes, confirmed that position in the following statement:

“..we recognise that many midwives and nurses are members of trade unions and respect their democratic right to express support for their unions and to lobby on a wide range of issues. This does of course include their right to support and take part in strike action … The Code does not prohibit nurses and midwives from taking part in industrial action.”

However, the NMC also issued the following reminder:

“..The Code does not prevent nurses and midwives from taking part in lawful industrial action but we remind them of their duty to uphold their professional standards at all times. The Code will continue to apply in the event of industrial action..”

When industrial action is arranged in a way that complies with trade union legislation, this provides immunity from dismissal purely for taking part in strike action, but it does not provide immunity for breaches of the NMC Code of Conduct or any other misconduct that may take place during the action. The RCN will never ask members to take industrial action in a way that is likely to lead to breaches of the Code, and will fully support members in the usual way should they face any disciplinary action whether during industrial action or not.

When a union decides to ballot its members on willingness to undertake industrial action, the ballot will ask whether members are willing to take strike action, action short of a strike, or both. The form of action ultimately taken will depend on the outcome of this ballot. For example, members may feel they are willing to take action short of a strike such as 'working to rule' (see question 3 above) and return a majority vote for this, but not feel they want to go on strike and fully withdraw their labour. Or they may vote equally in favour of both types, in which case sometimes it may be appropriate to start with action short of a strike and build up to a full stoppage if needed. Ultimately decisions will be taken by the relevant elected RCN decision-making authority, ensuring that the wishes of members are taken into account. The exact form of action proposed will always be explained in detail to members once decided, and sufficient support and guidance made available.

There is no obligation to go on strike, even if you are a member of a union that has voted in favour of doing so, and it is up to you if you take part. However the RCN will make clear which members it is asking to go on strike in the event of a positive ballot for industrial action, and would hope that these members would choose to participate as action is only as strong as the number of eligible workers supporting it. However the union will work with the employer to agree exemptions from taking action where there would otherwise be direct harm to patients or danger to the life or limb of any person. This means that members covering roles that are exempted are not expected to participate. In the event of any such exemptions being necessary the RCN will communicate clearly with those affected and offer all necessary support. 

Exemptions will not however be granted for the administrative convenience of managers, and exemptions will not be necessary where managers make their own arrangements for cover, such as deploying staff willing to break the strike.

The RCN will also take steps to ensure that those who would suffer long term financial loss can work normally during industrial action. This includes:

  • Pregnant women who have notified their employer of the expected due date of their baby (unless there is a clear commitment from the employer that the employee will not suffer any detriment)
  • People whose state benefits would be affected by taking part in industrial action.
This is to ensure that the time out of work and deduction from your wages caused by participating in strike action wouldn’t have a disproportionately damaging impact upon your long term financial health.

This will be determined after the ballot outcome. The RCN will inform members and employers with notice when a date or dates have been chosen for any industrial action so that there is enough time to prepare. Action would be initiated within four weeks of the close of the ballot and authorised by RCN Council.

Taking part in a strike or in action short of a strike will almost certainly involve a breach of your contract of employment. You have entered into a legally binding contract with your employer, as part of which you agree to do your work at the agreed times and in the agreed ways, in return for payment. If your employer suddenly stopped paying you this would be going against what the contract legally binds them to do so they would have ‘breached’ that agreement, and similarly if you stop providing the work you have agreed to do for them, you are also in breach. Your employer is entitled to withhold your pay if you stop doing the work you’ve agreed to do.

There are differences of opinion as to how one day of pay should be calculated, given that people are often paid on an hourly or annual basis rather than daily. The RCN believes this should be calculated by taking your annual salary and dividing it by 365 (the number of days in the year) as this gives the lowest possible amount and therefore minimises the impact on your total earnings. However sometimes an employer may not agree to this as they argue that you are not technically working every single day of the year, so it should be calculated based on dividing by the actual number of days you do work – so where they make this argument, the maximum deduction should be your annual salary divided by 260.

The courts have decided that when determining how much pay the employer can withhold as a result of strike action, the correct test is to consider what pay the employee would have received had they been at work. Contact the RCN for support if you think your employer is not doing this properly or deducting an unreasonable amount.

Although taking industrial action is a breach of the contract of employment (see question 10), it does not break continuous service if you return to work after the strike ends.  However, days of strike action will not count towards the length of service for any relevant qualifying periods, such as maternity pay, redundancy pay or unfair dismissal protection. For these types of rights you usually have to have both a certain duration of employment with one employer, and that employment needs to be continuous, i.e. no breaks. Strike action wouldn’t count as a break in service, but the amount of days of action you take would be subtracted from the total length of your service.


Days taken in industrial action are counted as ‘disallowed days' in NHS pensions and therefore are not counted when calculating pensionable service and pensionable pay. If you take strike action and are not paid, neither you nor your employer will pay pension contributions for that period. Therefore, any unpaid strike days will not count towards your scheme membership.

Maternity, adoption and shared parental leave pay

Rates of pay for types of parental leave is calculated based on earnings during a specified period prior to taking this leave, so unpaid absence due to participating in industrial action may affect this. If you think this may affect you, contact the RCN to seek further advice as you may be exempt.

The RCN has a strike benefit policy which is available.

The union is legally obliged to provide your employer with statistical information about members taking industrial action but not individual names. You aren’t obliged to tell your employer, but we advise that if asked you should answer truthfully. The RCN would intend to work cooperatively with management during any strike action to ensure that the service can be managed in a way that avoids any potential risk to patient care but allows employees to withdraw their labour and exercise their rights safely, so communicating with your employer honestly may help this.

The law protects employees from being unfairly dismissed for taking part in lawful industrial action from the first day of their employment. Industrial action will only be lawful if there is a trade dispute between workers and their employer and the union has complied with balloting rules and provided the employer with detailed notice about the industrial action at least seven days before it begins in Northern Ireland, and 14 days in England, Wales and Scotland. If you are dismissed for taking industrial action you can claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal up to 12 weeks after the action began. The RCN will offer you our full support in the usual way if this affects you. Please contact us as soon as possible if it does.

While employees are protected from dismissal, there are no statutory rights protecting staff from disciplinary action or victimisation for taking part in lawful industrial action. Under normal circumstances breaching your contract of employment may result in disciplinary action, but this would be counterproductive in relation to authorised and lawful industrial action as there is a clear understanding of why the breach has taken place and it would be very difficult for an employer to initiate disciplinary proceedings against large numbers of staff. It would also be likely to increase tensions and prolong any dispute. If you are involved in any misconduct separately to taking strike action, such as non-peaceful picketing, your employer may initiate disciplinary proceedings against you in the usual way. Before taking part in strike action it may be worthwhile familiarising yourself with your terms and conditions of employment and any applicable local disciplinary policies, as well as RCN guidance on safe picketing, to minimise the risk of disciplinary action. Should this affect you, the RCN will offer our full support in the usual way.

If you are on annual leave on a day of industrial action, you are free to use this day as you choose and that can include taking part in activities to support the industrial action that day if you wish. However you would not be considered to be officially taking part in the action and your employer could not deduct your pay for this day – which means you also wouldn’t be able to claim any strike benefit from the RCN. As such if you would like to take part in any industrial action that takes place, we would encourage you to postpone your annual leave if you can so that you can participate, or use the day to participate in any local demonstrations that might be taking place.

If you are not scheduled to work on a particular day of action, you would not be deemed to be taking part and you could not be subject to a deduction of wages on this day – and therefore you couldn’t claim strike benefit from the RCN. However, you are fully entitled to join in organised activities on the day.

Only if the industrial action relates to a trade dispute involving your own employer. Contact the RCN if you’re not sure.

Unfortunately, we cannot ballot members who work solely as agency staff. If you work both as an agency nurse and are employed in an NHS trust (under Agenda for Change pay and conditions) then we will ballot you as you are an employee of a trust we are in dispute with.

Legally we can only ballot members who are employed by an employer with whom we have the dispute. If you have not been included in the ballot you cannot take part in industrial action. However we would expect agency workers not to undermine the action by coming in to provide cover for RCN members who are on strike. It is not appropriate for employers to try to undermine the action by bringing in agency workers to cover for striking staff. It can also be unlawful for agencies to supply agency workers to provide cover for staff who are on strike.

We ballot members who have bank contracts with an HSC Trust.

The RCN has many student nurses in membership. As student members are not employees of an HSC Trust, unfortunately, they are not eligible to vote in the industrial action ballot.

If students also work as Nursing Assistants/Senior Nursing assistants they may have a Trust employment contract (mainly OU Students). However, if you are registered as an RCN student member you will not receive a ballot paper and will remain ineligible to vote.

OU Students who have retained RCN membership as a Health Care Support Worker (and not as a student) will receive a ballot paper and will be eligible to vote.

If you are a student on placement you must adhere to the terms of your placement if you are rostered to work during a period of industrial action. You should not be asked to do anything outside of your normal student work/ activities. You should not work outside your level of competency and you should not attempt to work unsupervised. You should not be asked to complete duties that are the responsibility of a registered nurse and you should not be asked to complete non nursing duties during a period of industrial action.

If you are unsure or have any concerns, please contact the RCN for advice. This advice will be shared with the universities and the employers.

RCN Council has the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether to call members to take industrial action.

We would hope that you would participate if there is a vote for industrial action but ultimately it is up to you. Please think carefully when you complete your ballot and only state that you would be willing to participate in strike action if that is genuinely the case.

Page last updated - 10/10/2019