Social workers looking for a body to represent them either have
BASW, small and specialist, or Unison, large and amorphous. Faced
with the weaknesses of both bodies, Ruth Winchester puts
the case for a new organisation for social care that is both
specialist and large enough to give social work the voice it
The next time the train network grinds to a halt because of
industrial action, perhaps someone, somewhere, will spare a thought
for social workers. Because, while the rail unions have an
effective way of being noticed, social care staff find that
grabbing the attention of the public or the politicians with mass
protests is way beyond their reach.
Who, for instance, would be able to organise a national protest
against a deeply flawed government scheme? What body would be able
to cajole, promise or threaten the powers that be to ensure that
the values of the profession were upheld? Who can carry the torch
for social work as a career, and campaign on national issues with
The answer, it seems, is no one. While nurses have the Royal
College of Nursing, teachers have the National Union of Teachers
and doctors have the British Medical Association, social workers
seem to be unique among professions in that they lack a single,
central entity driving the debate, protecting the workforce and
wielding the political stick.
That is not, of course, to say that no one is representing them.
The British Association of Social Workers claims a membership of
around 8,500 social workers, while public sector union Unison has
approximately 70,000 – and around 400,000 working in social care in
But both of these bodies have serious shortcomings. BASW, on one
hand, is small – exclusive to social work, certainly – but hardly
high profile. It is also struggling with its status as a
professional association as opposed to a union, something that has
enabled five local authorities to refuse to allow it to represent
its members in disputes.
Unison, on the other hand, is big, powerful and clearly capable
of organising protests and industrial action. Its failing is that
social work is somehow lost in the middle of a vast, amorphous
organisation which can do little to carry the torch for the sector,
encourage national cohesion, action and debate, or promote social
Both of these organisations will, of course, strenuously reject
these assertions, but the sense among old hands and those on the
frontline is that the past 20 years has seen social work as a
profession lose its sense of identity and, with that, its
The reasons for this are diverse. Unions across the board have
steadily lost membership and influence during the past two decades,
largely through the actions and legislation of successive
Conservative governments. But some argue that there has been a more
fundamental change during this time.
Perhaps the most obvious is that social care is now an
incredibly diverse sector, spread out geographically and across an
enormous range of different specialisms. What makes staff in one
specialism shiver with dread often holds no real meaning for staff
in another, and public sector workers face different problems to
those in the independent sector. Bringing social care together to
campaign under one banner is becoming increasingly difficult –
driven perhaps by the end of the unifying “social services
But there is an argument that suggests that while the
nitty-gritty of day-to-day experience may be different, the real
issues at stake are shared. Broad brush issues, such as the
downgrading of social care as a skilled profession to one of
officers ticking boxes and meeting targets, and the increasing
“healthification” of the sector are of significance to most staff.
Ultimately, the differences between specialisms and locations may
be more imagined than real.
A more mundane reason for their lack of national representation
may be the simple grinding down of all passion, idealism and
self-esteem among social care staff. Twenty years ago many of the
most prominent union activists came from within social care, and
most social workers were politically active people who “wanted to
change the world”.
This no longer seems to be the case. The sector is undeniably
tired of being vilified in the press, targeted by politicians and
derided by the public. Large numbers of staff are choosing to leave
the job for something less arduous, but those who remain are
struggling with new initiative after new initiative, drowning in
paperwork and often thoroughly demoralised. It could be argued that
after so many years of constant battles the profession simply has
very little fight left in it.
Unfortunately the situation is now becoming farcical. The
Association of Directors of Social Services is arguably the only
social care body with sufficient credibility and connections to
have any impact on government thinking, yet it represents a tiny
number of senior social services staff. Social care staff on the
frontline are under attack from all quarters, yet those charged
with championing them are being forced to retreat into
Unison, for its part, is just not equipped to deal with the
specific issues that arise for social care staff. One Unison
convenor, who asked not to be named, explained: “Unison is just too
big. It represents lorry drivers, housing workers, cleaners and
school staff. A branch might represent 4,000 people – only 400 of
those will be social care staff.
“There is no way that Unison can take on board the issues
specifically relating to social care.”
BASW, on the other hand, is faced with an impossible situation.
A small membership means funds are tight and big national campaigns
and shows of strength are out of the question. Moreover, BASW’s
status as the only professional body dedicated to social care has
been called into question by the five local authorities that are
refusing to allow it to represent staff in grievance and
BASW director Ian Johnston has suggested that people should
cover all possible bases by being members both of BASW and of a
trade union. Yet this would cost the average qualified social
worker around £300 a year in membership fees and still offer
no guarantee of representation in local and national matters.
The situation is playing straight into the hands of employers
who, understandably, fear the idea of a social care workforce with
a powerful, central, representative body. They prefer the current
situation, where BASW can be sidelined and excluded from
negotiations because of its small membership, low profile and
non-union status, while Unison’s cumbersome bulk means its eye is
very rarely on the social care ball.
It is significant that frontline staff – even those heavily
involved in Unison – say they would, without hesitation, move out
of both BASW and Unison to join a specialist social care union, if
one were to emerge. There is, it seems, a real demand for a
professional body with a clear, national voice, which will fight
social care’s corner tooth and nail.
Unfortunately there is little sign of any such body on the
horizon. Some have speculated that the white-collar union MSF
(Manufacturing Science Finance) may be eyeing up social care as a
possible opportunity, but the union itself denies any such plan.
But there may yet be hope for a saviour to appear on the horizon.
While many smaller professional associations have disappeared
without trace when merged with larger bodies, large unions can
sometimes make a success out of bringing smaller ones into the
MSF, for instance, has absorbed what used to be the Health
Visitors’ Association, now the Community Practitioners’ and Health
Visitors’ Association. While “absorbed” has negative connotations,
the CPHVA is still able to promote itself as an individual entity,
set up and run for a specific membership. The Chartered Society of
Physiotherapy was affiliated to the TUC several years ago, bringing
with it a number of advantages for members, yet the society manages
to retain its identity as the profession’s association and
champion. By way of contrast, occupational therapists were subsumed
within the auspices of Unison and have since struggled with their
position as a very small cog in a vast wheel.
So what should a new social care union look like? Perhaps the
cue should come from a markedly successful and high profile union,
the RCN. It is the sixth-largest union in the country –
specifically for one profession, yet able to provide members with
advice and representation, training courses and other unique
opportunities. And, significantly, it is politically influential –
coherent, persuasive and viewed with a mixture of respect and fear
by government and employers.
Tom Bolger is assistant general secretary. He acknowledges that
the sheer size of the RCN – with 330,000 members – is a significant
strength in terms both of clout and finances. But he also
highlights the perceptions of the public as a significant factor.
“There’s a similar picture in terms of low morale for both nurses
and social workers, but the difference is that nurses are seen as
angels, whereas social workers have horns. That’s a huge challenge
for any organisation to tackle.”
It would be difficult for any brand new organisation to get a
toehold in the social care sector right now, when so much is in
turmoil. But, unfortunately, the irony is that unless someone takes
charge of the situation it won’t matter that social care doesn’t
have a voice, because there won’t be a social care sector to use
it. BASW, as the body arguably best placed to take up the baton,
faces a stark choice. Either it gets the bit between its teeth,
once and for all, and faces up to the challenge – or it follows the
sector into obsolescence.