United Kingdom: Pat Cullen, the nurse who carries the voice of angry caregivers

United Kingdom Pat Cullen the nurse who carries the voice

Megaphone in hand, she harangues her troops, and reviews their paraphernalia – flags, slogans, and warm clothes. In a few weeks, Pat Cullen, 58, has become one of the faces of the historic caregiver strike, which continues this Wednesday, February 1 in the United Kingdom – half a million Britons are called to walk off to demand better wages.

“We can do it. We will be in the history books. It’s time to change our profession”. Since the beginning of the movement, at the end of 2022, the secretary general of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – a union which represents 450,000 workers in the health sector – has been on TV sets, produced mobilization videos, to convince her peers, and the general public to take an interest in their profession. She recounts the exhaustion and downgrading of her colleagues, the sexual assaults and the racism that there can be in the hospital environment.

“Some of these nurses cried with me. They walked with me and showed me the food banks they were reduced to using. They told me about the fears they had about their children returning school and not being able to afford their shoes. It was heartbreaking,” she told the Guardianin a portrait which was dedicated to her in mid-January and which presents her as a formidable negotiator.

A strike in the middle of epidemic season

By dint of media interventions and tours on the picket lines, this farmer’s daughter, five of her seven brothers and sisters of whom are part of the profession, led her colleagues to vote for a historic strike: for the first time since the creation of the RCN 106 years ago, they stopped work on December 15 and 20, when the season is favorable for hospitalizations. In the month of December alone, 30,000 operations and medical procedures were canceled in connection with the movement.

A historic strike, which erodes the minimum service while caregivers usually refuse to let their patients down. But don’t go telling Pat Cullen that the movement is happening in spite of the sick. “People are not dying because nurses are on strike; nurses are on strike because people are dying from a lack of means”, she replied to L’Express, when we questioned her at the end of December 2022.

Since then, the movement has continued, and has spread to other trades, as evidenced by the motley crowds observed on Wednesday. In the field, the 41-year-old nurse insists, in a calm but firm tone, that because of austerity policies, nurses’ salaries have fallen by nearly 20% in ten years, in terms of real. Thus, the RCN is calling for a salary increase of around 19% in the face of inflation of 10.5%. What the British Ministry of Health refuses.

“I’m going all the way”

Pat Cullen came into the business working in the mental health sector. Her first fight took place in a psychiatric hospital, in Antrim, Northern Ireland, in 1983. She wrote to the management to complain about a “heartless policy” according to which difficult patients were deprived of their personal items. “It was totally unfair…These people were sick…They couldn’t cope 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 for a pay rise. It was the first movement since the creation of the union. Since then, the nurse keeps repeating: “When I believe in something, I go all the way”. While other sectors are on strike, the nurses’ movement is one of the most popular in the UK. Two other days of mobilization are announced for February 6 and 7, affecting more hospitals.