The year 1978 ended with a welter of industrial disputes involving
council workers. Among them were social workers who as the year
ended reached the halfway point of a dispute that was to see them
out until the spring. The last social workers left the picket lines
six weeks before Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street. The
Thatcher revolution, which was to turn social work on its head, has
largely obscured the significance of the timing, character and
arguably long-term effects of the only national social work
The dispute came at the fag end of a stormy 15 years in industrial
relations. It was never national in a literal sense – only 15 of
143 councils were involved and at its height 2,500 staff were on
strike. The strike began in August when staff in Newcastle,
Southwark and Lewisham walked out.
Hackney followed, coming out more in solidarity than in anger,
because like other London boroughs, salaries were enhanced through
London weighting and staff were additionally receiving two
increments above the London pay scale. In Liverpool there was an 85
per cent ballot on a 98 per cent turnout. In Leeds staff stayed out
on the basis of only a handful of votes.
These were the days of a strong shop stewards movement that
characterised, in particular, industrial relations in the docks and
car industry. Social workers wanted to break away from inflexible
national bargaining in favour of local agreements.
The last regrading had been in 1968. Yet since then social services
departments had been created and local government had been
reorganised. This had gone hand in hand with new legislation such
as the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, the Chronically Sick
and Disabled Persons Act 1970 and the Children Act 1975. All added
to social workers’ in-trays.
There were other influences on the strike. The expansion of local
government after the 1970 reorganisation and of social services
after the Seebohm reforms of 1972 brought in many people with a
background in 1960s university militancy.
Andrew Mackinlay, now Labour MP for Thurrock but at the time of the
strike National and Local Government Officers Association district
officer in Lewisham, believes that the influence of the Socialist
Workers Party was strong in the union and that some leading people
were members of the Communist Party. “There was no question about
the role the SWP played and it set a pattern for a score or more
Another who supports the idea that the strike was about more than
purely pay is Ivan Beavis, seconded from his job as a housing
manager in Hackney to be the full-time Nalgo branch secretary. Now
circulation manager of the Morning Star, he says he was suspicious
of the role of the “ultra” left – the SWP – which had members in
many social services departments.
The arguments about the morality of social workers striking never
went away. The heading for the first of several leading articles in
Community Care summed up one side of the argument: “Social workers
Graham Burgess, now deputy chief executive at Blackburn with Darwen
Council, was a national leader of the strike. He was a social
worker in the Vauxhall area of Liverpool and chaired the Liverpool
strike committee. He says: “I had no qualms about striking. I felt
that the responsibility lay with the employers – they offered poor
conditions and wages that would cause a decline in the profession
and have a harmful, long-term effect on the clients.”
Another national figure was Pete Cresswell, a basic grade worker in
Liverpool. He went on strike, he says, although there were “no life
and death issues”.
Harry Lyons, a former general secretary and now professional
officer at the British Union of Social Work Employees, makes a
pragmatic objection: “We have always believed strike action by
social workers to be ineffective and counter-productive.”
Terry Connor, then team leader on the picket line in Southwark and
now director, Catholic Children’s Society (Arundel and Brighton,
Portsmouth and Southwark), says: “Most people had qualms about
striking and a lot of social workers maintained ‘unofficial’
contact with some clients.”
Nalgo’s financial provision helped sustain the strike: strikers
were on full pay. According to Mackinlay: “There were many who had
great professional anxieties about striking but if you are being
paid, whatever else you may think, there is no hardship.” He
believes something else helped the strike. It was “abetted” by
Labour councils who were unwilling to “turn the screw” on strikers
which is why so few Tory-run councils came out. “They would not
have been so passive,” he adds.
But the late 1970s were also different times. There were few
restrictive trade union laws, no ban on secondary picketing and no
statutory obligation to ballot (although there were ballots).
Almost all social workers were then employed in local government.
Perhaps, too, social work’s self-confidence about itself and its
future, less than a decade after the Seebohm reforms, was greater
than it is today.
But also, claims Burgess: “Management today is different – managers
can be more subtle in dealing with staff, they listen more, and can
be more flexible. Then they tended to be very hierarchical.” He
cannot imagine a social work strike today.
The British Association of Social Workers was opposed to the strike
but did not publicly voice its opposition. It believed that there
were legitimate grievances – for example, during the strike it
called for a minimum salary for workers of £4,733.
There were other divisions within the profession’s ranks before the
strike began. Earlier in 1978 BASW was midwife to Buswe whose first
1,600 members were boosted by the merger with the National Union of
Social Workers founded in 1972. Although BASW soon distanced itself
from Buswe, it caused a rift with Nalgo that weakened BASW.
There was much debate about providing emergency cover during the
strike to mitigate its effects. Arrangements were variable. Buswe
members covered emergencies but would not undertake work that
strikers would undertake as part of their day-to-day duties.
The long-term effects remain debatable. Of the immediate aims
Burgess says: “The achievement was improving the economic lot of
social workers.” He suggests that the strike managed to retain
staff who would otherwise have left due to “appalling” pay scales.
The new grading structure introduced greater flexibility and opened
the way to local bargaining.
Also, Nalgo came to realise that social workers were an important
part of its membership. It started to campaign on wider social
services issues, rather than just pay and conditions. It submitted
evidence to the Barclay inquiry on the future of social work.
Burgess was elected to the national executive committee and other
social workers followed him.
Did the strike further diminish public, media and political
sympathy with social workers? The difference on this is not between
those who supported the strike and those who did not. Connor
suggests: “The long-term effect of the strike was undoubtedly to
weaken any status or credibility social work might have enjoyed.
The whole thing became self-defeating and embarrassing for Nalgo.
Once the threat of a strike had failed, the longer it went on
without a settlement, the more politicians and the public would
question the relevance of social work.”
Terry Bamford, who, as a BASW council member was involved in
discussions during the strike, says it diminished professional
status by asserting union loyalty above client welfare. “The
feeling in social services offices was one of concern rather than
condemnation for the strike and its effect. There was relief when
it was over.”
Paul Marks, assistant organising officer for Nalgo at the time,
says the dispute raised the profile and status of social work
within the union but is “agnostic” as to whether it raised the
status of the profession within local government or diminished it
in the eyes of public and politicians.
Beavis never approved of the strike because he believed that it
would be ineffective. “The employers couldn’t care tuppence and
those who were affected – vulnerable people – were not the sort to
put pressure on them.” However, Beavis believes that Nalgo did a
“fine job” in supporting social workers.
John Pierson, now senior lecturer in social work at Staffordshire
University, went from training course to picket line with doubts
about leaving clients. He remembers worrying about a couple in
their 80s caring for their disabled daughter. Later he found that
they had coped extremely well “as, of course, they had for the
previous 40 years”.
Cresswell says that strikers were missed but by people who had no
power or voice. But Burgess disagrees: “It must have made some
difference for the employers to give such massive pay rises. Also
when we went back there was a huge backlog of work.”
He says the strike also achieved something else: “You have to
remember that many strikers were young and the strike helped them
to learn and grow – they met new people, they made friendships that
have often lasted until today. This ‘social’ side is is often
ignored when balancing what was achieved.”
Radical social work, then a strong force, which had concentrated on
the working class and trade unions as instruments of change,
switched tack to focus on the oppression of women and black
Substantial pay rises were gained: for example, 22 per cent in
Liverpool. Staff returned as progress was made on local
negotiating. Cheshire, Manchester, Sheffield, Rochdale and Leeds
returned in early March followed by Southwark, Newham, Liverpool
and Lewisham. But the agreement was yet to be signed. Jeff Hughes,
strikers’ spokesperson in Tower Hamlets, complained at the time of
the “indecent haste”, adding that it was “a fitting end to a
mismanaged and badly organised strike”.
And so it ended as it began: piecemeal, sometimes reluctant, often
acrimonious, always controversial. It lives on in strikers’
memories, in the faded cyclostyled strike sheets and in the
yellowing pages of Community Care. It is unlikely to gain even a
footnote in the history of British industrial relations.