In my current novel, one of the characters is an accredited
social worker. She lives on a knife edge in the expectation of
disaster and describes her work as “shuffling human misery like a
pack of Tarot cards”. But for the sense of commitment that brought
her to the job, she would resign, walk away, get a proper life.
In terms of job satisfaction, social work must touch the bottom
of the scale. Pressures are enormous and relentless, pay is low,
working conditions are often poor, management can be tyrannical.
Social workers are caught not just between the conflicting demands
of employers and clientele, but browbeaten too by the expectations
of society, on whose behalf they engage in unacknowledged policing
of all those “difficult” people, such as young offenders, the poor,
children with problems, older people, the mentally and physically
infirm, the mentally ill and the many others who, from time to
time, need help to survive our brutal world. No wonder then that so
many simply abandon the profession; no wonder there are so few
recruits to take their place.
History is, it is said, bound to repeat itself. In the early
1980s, when I was still in social work, local authority staff were
balloted on strike action for better pay and conditions, and forced
into an irreconcilable conflict between employers, unions, ethical
and personal considerations.
Employers argued that, knowing the score before signing the
employment contract, we had no grounds for complaint. The unions
demanded solidarity:a rallying cry that sounds good but was not, as
I later found to my cost, necessarily more than empty words. From
the ethical standpoint, it was wrong to desert those for whom we
were employed to care. In addition, I knew no one who could afford
to lose pay by striking.
Last time round, the Conservatives were in government – the
party that, by tradition, oppresses the workers and promotes the
interests of the ruling elite. When the Labour Party – that child
of an earlier generation of oppressed workers – eventually returned
to power, the expectations of workers, the needy, the have-nots,
rose, only to drop when reality began to bite.
New Labour seems to be a cynical, cold-hearted animal, keen to
promote only the interests of the new elite it has created around
itself. In a country as wealthy as Britain, key workers should not
be driven to strike for decent pay and decent conditions while the
fruits of draconian taxation disappear into government coffers. The
past 20 years have witnessed the erosion of many workers’ rights
and the growth of a culture where once again, higher education,
good living standards, fair pay, home ownership, are an impossible
dream for all but the rich and the powerful.
Unions too were conceived as the offspring of oppressed workers
but in the modern world, their motivations are no longer so
clear-cut. In one sense, workers abrogate self-determination by
joining a union, and become a big stick for the unions to wave in
the employers’ face. Nonetheless, they are the ones who suffer both
the short and long-term consequences of striking – the unions,
corporate organisations in their own right, will survive. Arguably,
those consequences will be negative and destructive, for, more
often than not, employers hold the whip hand and, as history more
than amply demonstrates, striking is viewed as an act of aggression
that leads to deeper entrenchment and greater hostility.
Public services are in a state of near chaos, collapsing about
our ears. Beset by confusion, conflicting pressures, absence of
direction and starved of vital funding, they are effectively
rendered impotent. There are many obvious parallels between our
transport system, especially the railways, and social care, and
strikes are unlikely to lead to the improvements necessary across
the board. In a strike, local authorities can “buy in” essential
workers from agencies, but in so doing, further reduce their finite
resources; the net result will be job losses and service cuts or,
in other words, more harm to those at the bottom of the heap.
Cynical it may sound, but anyone contemplating strike action
should perhaps first ask themselves how rapidly their absence from
work could be turned to their serious disadvantage. In April 2001,
87 workers at the former Ferodo factory in north Wales went on
strike; eight weeks later, via a cleverly utilised loophole in
employment legislation, they were sacked.
Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’