When Owen Davies resigned as Unison’s national officer for social care to join the General Social Care Council earlier this year there were suggestions he was a poacher turned gamekeeper (Interview, 23 February).
While Davies denied this, his move illustrated that the former social worker was first and foremost a social care person.
The opposite is true of Helga Pile, his successor at the public sector union. With a background in policy research and trade unionism, she joined Unison last month after eight years at the GMB, working in its public services division.
Pile does not think her lack of social care experience will be a problem because Unison’s national committee for social care – which consists purely of practitioners – will take a lead in developing the union’s policy in the sector.
However, she admits: “Owen is a hard act to follow. His professional background earned him a lot of kudos and respect within the field.”
As part of the local government unit, Pile represents council staff while voluntary sector social care workers are represented by Unison’s community and voluntary sector unit. Also, Unison’s highest profile area of work is health and the interests of its NHS members may not always coincide with those of its social care staff, particularly given the knock-on effect on social care of financial decisions in the NHS.
Pile recognises that uniting the professional disciplines within Unison will be difficult: “It’s a constant challenge but we’ve put a lot of resources into doing that.”
Despite her local government role, Pile’s policy development function covers the whole of social care, and she wants to promote greater consistency in the positions of employees in different parts of the sector.
Figures released in February showed that councils spent significantly more on services they provided directly than on comparable care they commissioned (news, 9 February). One result is lower wages for care workers in the independent sector, who account for most staff.
Pile is keen to explore how commissioning can be reformed to improve conditions in the independent sector, but is sceptical about how far pay rates can be written into contracts. “We need to look at some benchmarks. I’m not sure how far we can prescribe.”
Pay is also a key issue for local government social care staff. A three-year pay deal for council employees comes to an end next March, so negotiations are due. But the prognosis is not good after chancellor Gordon Brown’s call for lower pay settlements in the public sector (news, 8 June).
Pile says: “It does make it challenging when comments like that are made. In terms of public sector morale, that’s not going to be completely helpful.”
The 2004 three-year deal included a pledge by employers to complete the single status agreement process, which aims to pay comparable rates for similar jobs and would benefit traditionally female-dominated sectors such as social care. But it has been implemented slowly or not at all in many local authorities, which have cited a lack of resources. Pile says: “There are issues around that but we’ve got a clear agreement.”
A more pressing issue is pensions. Unison is still trying to persuade the government to allow existing council staff to continue to retire at 60, like other public sector workers, rather than at 65, as the government wishes. Given the level of resistance, this may be a forlorn hope, but Pile adds: “Discussions are at a critical stage.”
Pile’s approach to trade unionism appears to be more collaborative than confrontational. Ultimately, she will be judged on her ability to improve terms and conditions for social care staff – a task that historically has been challenging.