Social workers are being urged to stand up for the principles of their profession by campaigning against the spending cuts affecting social care recipients.
As millions of pounds are slashed from care budgets, resulting in thousands of job losses within the sector, unions and care leaders called on the professionals to participate in the TUC rally against cuts planned for London later this month.
Writing on Community Care’s Frontline Focus blog, Chris Tansley, Unison vice president and a children’s social worker in Nottinghamshire, called for opposition to the “marketisation” of public services to be shown at the event.
“We need the real Big Society – our communities, service users, public sector workers and trade unionists – to join together on the 26 March and hold the biggest demonstration that this country has ever seen before it’s too late,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the Social Work Action Network (Swan) is urging practitioners to lobby on behalf of service users. “We need to see more social workers involved in more protests,” said Barrie Levine, Swan steering group member. “The cuts are going to hit the poorest, most vulnerable people in society. These are the people social workers work with, and we have a duty to support them on the principles of social justice and human rights.”
Levine admitted that working for local authorities was sometimes incompatible with protesting but insisted that joining unions and setting up local Swan groups enabled collective action by social workers.
The Unison branch at Newcastle Council has campaigned against proposed £1m cuts to learning disability services by supporting relatives of service users to lobby councillors.
Karen Reeve, the head of children’s social care at Reading Council who has criticised sector leaders for inaction, called on professionals “not to be apathetic”, and has written to her local MP to inform him of the impact of cuts.
A spokesperson for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services said anecdotal evidence suggested few social workers were actively protesting. He said the association did not have a view on whether it was appropriate for staff to take part in campaigns, provided no threat was posed to vulnerable people.
How do I protest? The pros and cons
Strikes can only take place if a postal ballot of union members results in a “yes” verdict and the strike relates to a dispute between workers and their own employer. The law provides workers with protection against dismissal or other disciplinary action. Withholding labour constitutes a powerful protest but social care workers are understandably reluctant to leave service users without support.
Work-to-rule, where staff work to their job description and refuse to do any work outside of this, requires a majority vote from union members. Staff taking part in unofficial work-to-rule protests lose the right to claim unfair dismissal. Working to rule can make a point but may affect service users.
Helping others to protest
Persuading other people to lobby against cuts can have a big impact without jeopardising career prospects. Staff at one closure-threatened trauma therapy centre were reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their jobs. Instead, they informed community activists and staff previously employed there, organising a petition that gained more than 2,000 signatures.
Engaging with the media
Speaking to the media can help to raise awareness of the impact of the cuts, showing the local community the strength of feeling. However, many councils prevent staff from speaking to the media without permission and failure to observe this can lead to disciplinary action. Even council-employed union officials can get into trouble.
Stunts allow protesters to show off their creative side: for example, a mock funeral was held by a local organisation in Lewisham earlier this month to mourn the death of public services. Last Halloween saw Unison members in Somerset dress up in skeleton suits to lobby councillors against “skeleton services”. Protest stunts attract attention but persuading colleagues to don fancy dress may prove difficult.
Writing letters to MPs and councillors and attending their surgeries will raise awareness of social workers’ plight. Even petitions can still have an impact, especially if online. However, politicians may not always have time to listen, and many will toe their party line and refuse to listen. Bosses can react badly if staff go over their heads to speak to councillors.
Social work code of practice
The General Social Care Council’s code of practice for social care workers requires professionals to report to their employer resource or operational difficulties that might prevent delivery of safe care. This can be used to justify a campaign against cuts, by arguing that social workers are legally obliged to raise their concerns.
Special report on the council cuts
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