For some, trade unions are a blast from the past. Their heyday in the 1970s was a decade of collective action, strikes and the occasional riot. It sometimes seems that the only survivors from that era are Abba and Rocky Balboa.
Yet the debate over whether social workers should have a stronger union presence is an issue that burns as strongly now as it did 30 years ago. In 1978, members of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) voted to create the British Union of Social Workers (later to become the British Union of Social Work Employees or Buswe). Now, the role of unions in the sector has once again come to the forefront.
Over the years a profession that was a hot-bed of radicalism and protest has slowly transformed into a highly regulated and structured career. Unlike health care professions such as nursing, however, many social workers are still not unionised. Unison, which represents all local authority workers, has about 40,000 social worker members out of a possible 80,000, with other specialist social work unions lagging far behind.
The arguments for and against BASW establishing stronger links with Unison, and whether this would conflict with its role as a professional association, are being revisited at its annual general meeting on 29 and 30 April. Members will be asked whether the organisation should enter into “a closer arrangement” with trade unions, which would include the possibility of voluntary shared membership.
To complicate matters there has been a great deal of movement on the union front recently, with a confusing series of mergers, acquisitions and defections. A fight for members is on and battle lines have been drawn. The heavyweight, Unison, is facing up to the threat of Buswe joining forces with Community, which itself was formed from a steel union and a clothing union. Also preparing to jump into the ring is the education and children’s services union and professional association Aspect, which has launched its own social work division. This is headed by former Buswe general secretary Steve Anslow, who left after he objected to the proposed Community merger. Add in various other unions with social worker membership, such as Unite and the GMB, and you have something approaching a battle royale.
BASW will clearly have to tread carefully if it is to avoid stepping on any toes. Harry Lyons, the current Buswe general secretary, welcomes the association’s advances but is keenly aware that history is in danger of repeating itself. Not long after it was formed, Buswe was forced out of BASW’s offices and left to fend for itself after Nalgo (later to become part of Unison) threatened to sever its ties with the association.
“It’s almost like déjà vu. I feel sad that we’re talking about something that 30 years ago was within our grasp,” says Lyons. “If truth be known, I don’t think either Nalgo or Unison have progressed the position of social workers. Given that the percentage of their social worker members is only around 3% or 4%, I don’t think it’s at the top of their agenda,” he says.
The reason behind Buswe’s forthcoming merger with Community is simple. “We are in an embryonic state at the minute, but when we join Community we hope to use their connections with the TUC to further our cause,” Lyons explains. “We’ve wanted affiliation for 12 to 14 years, and each time it was knocked back from opposition from Nalgo/Unison.”
The power and negotiating rights that Buswe will achieve through the TUC is something social workers desperately need, he says. “Some non-unionised social workers are in quite vulnerable situations. So many things are happening in social care – for instance, people hiring their own carers will form a market of employed people with no kind of organisation or guaranteed basics.”
Aspect only has about 200 social workers on its books but the new section hasn’t had a chance to advertise itself yet. General secretary John Chowcat (right) also believes social workers need more protection. He echoes Lyons’ view that there needs to be a stronger social work voice on issues such as personalised budgets. “There’s an urgent need for professionals, particularly senior professionals, in the social care sector to establish a clear trade union voice that speaks on both trade union and professional issues,” he says.
Aspect already has good links with BASW and Chowcat would welcome a more formal association with open arms. “Social care professionals do not separate questions about their pay and conditions of service and issues to do with professional role and status they are heavily interlinked,” he says. “I think it’s common sense to see it as broadly under the one umbrella.”
Unison head of social services Helga Pile is equally adamant that her union, with the backing of 1.5 million members, is best placed to support social workers. “In terms of Aspect, our concern would be that they don’t have any negotiating rights over pay and conditions for social workers,” she says. “That would limit what they’re able to do in terms of those bread-and-butter issues. In terms of Buswe, they have very small numbers.”
But how does she respond to criticisms that social workers can get swamped in such a large union? “It’s not something I recognise as being a major issue. One of the things that is striking about our organisation is the number of our activists who are actually from a social work background. We’ve got active networks and forums in our regions, so the vast majority of our members do feel that they have the ability to come together and discuss the issues that are important to them.”
Although he recognises that the union issue is a “contentious area” within the BASW membership, chief executive Ian Johnston (right) remains positive about the recent union upheavals. “Hopefully we can cash in on that to the benefit of our workers,” he says. “They see our ability to lobby government and respond to consultations, even though we’re quite small. They struggle to do that. We don’t give money to the government so we can say what we like and campaign without worrying about biting the hand that feeds us.”
Perhaps the most pressing reason for the forthcoming AGM debate is the basic fact of numbers – with only one in eight social workers joining BASW, Johnston feels it needs more muscle and more money. “Very often, nearly-qualified workers make a choice between joining a trade union and joining our association,” he continues. “We would like to negotiate an arrangement whereby people could join both without having to pay twice as much.”
The big question is, with a long history of larger generic unions blocking the efforts of smaller specialised ones, has anything changed from 30 years ago? “There’s no right answer to that, really,” says Johnston. “The proof of the pudding’s in the eating. We’re far from doing any deal with anybody, but obviously we already have links with Unison and Aspect. If there’s an issue about people feeling they are marginalised in a union like Unison, that represents a lot of local authority workers, will people feel significantly better off if they’re in a union that represents all children’s service workers? The same issues will arise.”
Whatever the direction BASW members take at the AGM, everyone agrees that social workers need support from both a trade union and a professional body. As Johnston puts it: “It’s a difficult job social workers do, and to do it on your own is not wise.”
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