There is something happening in Southampton that should inspire social workers everywhere. A wave of anger has swept north from the Middle East to hit the Solent and awoken a group of workers that seemed before to have forgotten their collective voice. Social care workers in the city have not only been caught up in a bitter dispute with a vicious Tory council, they are now at the forefront of the struggle against austerity. After a slow burning start they have burst into action. The fuel has been emotional blackmail from bosses and councillors.
Problems started with expectations we work ever more hours for free with high and complex caseloads, laborious paperwork systems and little support from a senior management that has lost touch with its workforce. In the Protection and Court teams (PACT) there is a massive turnover of staff, with service users bewildered by constantly changing social workers, often 6 or more a year. Some teams have dangerously high numbers of unallocated child protection cases visited by a number of duty workers resulting in obvious risks. One social worker died at her desk last year with stress levels a major factor. The next day another social worker collapsed with a heart attack in the same building.
High sickness levels continue and much needed experienced social workers have left in protest at planned attacks on our salary and conditions. The proposals by the council involve a 5% pay cut and indefinite pay freeze meaning workers lose at least £200 each month. On top, living costs are rising by 5% and the Government’s proposed pension contributions increase will eat further into pay. Meanwhile very high numbers of agency workers have been employed. Some are earning around £65k p.a. making a mockery of the Council’s insistence that cuts are part of austerity measures. Many of us believe it is Tory ideology to smash the public sector and open it up to the free market. Southampton also recruited American social workers who were excellent but felt they had been cheated. Nearly all have now returned home, disaffected and drained. One told me that the Bronx was an easier option.
We have been forced to take this pay cut after being sacked and reinstated on an amended contract that will open us up to increased exploitation. To many the pay cut, and increased pension contributions has made people feel close to burnout by their 30s. There is a growing feeling that the reality of today`s social work is far removed from the ideals we all trained for, and that a tipping point has been reached. As a social worker with over 20 years experience I have long been frustrated that while there are individual expressions of anger at these conditions in many social work offices across the country, no one seemed to have the energy or motivation to do something about it collectively. In Southampton, that has now begun to change.
Social care staff have taken a stand alongside refuse workers, librarians and youth workers, all groups among the 4000 council workforce affected by pay cuts. There have been lunchtime marches of over a 1000, packed union meetings and strong and effective industrial action. On two occasions now workers have spilled into councillors meetings and disrupted them. There have been many excellent actions across sectors. Social workers showed great solidarity when bosses recently tried to divide and rule. Children and families social workers were offered a market supplement of £1400 to offset the 5% pay cut. Colleagues in the adult sector and many others were not included. A mass meeting was called across social care and children and families workers unanimously voted to reject the offer. Workers anger was palpable and they demanded 6 days of strike action supported by union leaders. Various teams went on 6-day strike action and others on two-day action. We could claim 70% pay from the union but many chose not to. We have been heartened by amazing support from across the UK and internationally: trade unionists, anti cuts groups and members of the public. At a packed union meeting the overwhelming message was that the divide and rule tactic had increased our anger and strengthened our resolve; the message to councillors and our bosses was no cuts to pay – refuse workers or social care workers we all stand together.
After the most recent action the mood remains strong. In mid-August we came to the end of the 12-week period of dispute where strike action is legal. Any further action has been threatened with sackings by the Tory council. However, workers are meeting with Unite and Unison trade unions and more strikes have been promised.
It had been a difficult environment to work in but the dispute has greatly raised the consciousness of workers involved. Social workers are once more talking about class and there is a feeling that we can win this. We know we have to, not just for ourselves but for all the other public sector workers whose bosses are eagerly watching the outcome in Southampton as they try to push though cuts.
The key outcomes sought under Every Child Matters seem a mockery when thousands of young people explode into riots because they don’t feel safe, included or any sense of achievement – they feel unheard and forgotten. With no employment, no chance of getting into social housing or onto the property ladder, education coming at a price they cant afford and with the only role models they are offered in the upper echelons of our society the corrupt and morally bankrupt bankers, expense cheating politicians, corrupt police, scumbag billionaires and News International and media hackers.
This dispute and the principled actions of social workers and care staff within it destroys the myth that social workers harm the vulnerable when they take strike action. The truth is that striking is a vital option. When standing up for those in need we cannot let our profession be run into the ground and overwhelmed. Once again we need to become agents of social change.
Southampton social workers continued their action in October. For latest news: http://www.soton-unison-office.org.uk.