Professional protest

The famous strikers’ rallying cry of “one out, all out” has not
been heard among the whole social care workforce since the lengthy
social work strike of the late 1970s. But in recent months several
local disputes across the UK have hit the headlines. From nursery
nurses in Edinburgh to children’s social workers in Liverpool and
approved social workers in Nottingham, it seems all is not well in
social care. And local government unions have slammed employers’ 7
per cent pay offer over three years. Industrial action, or the
threat of it, by social care staff is increasingly common.

Other public sector employees such as fire fighters, London
Underground staff and teachers have all staged recent high-profile
strikes. With many strikes, whatever their causes, sections of the
media promote an image of action provoked by a minority of staff
hell-bent on causing as much disruption as possible. This militant
tag is one that social care staff have fought to distance
themselves from over the decades.

But perhaps this is changing. Janet Foulds, chairperson of the
British Association of Social Workers, says recent developments
“indicate a growing militancy borne out of frustration at the
long-standing undervaluing of social care workers, and aimed at
achieving overdue improvements in status, pay and working

Guidance issued after high-profile tragedies has not been
accompanied by any noticeable increase in resources and this can
set staff up to fail, she says. This all adds up to a sense of
being neglected.

Frustration among staff and the feeling that they are not being
listened to by their employers is contributing to the current mood.
Owen Davies, national officer for social services at Unison, agrees
that there is “a lot of anger out there at present”.

Some workers may feel they have no option other than to take
industrial action. Bill McKitterick, chairperson of the Association
of Directors of Social Services’ human resources and training
committee, says: “A very pressured workforce will threaten
industrial action if the future is unclear and employers can’t
resolve differences using the usual consultation process.”

One group of social care professionals that decided to take
industrial action was Nottingham Council’s approved social workers.
In a Unison ballot last month 35 ASWs opted to take industrial
action short of striking, in effect working to rule, over a
long-running dispute over backdated pay. Linda Perks, Unison East
Midlands regional secretary, says it was a decision the ASWs had
“not taken lightly”.

The council response was tough: it took the unusual step of
applying for an injunction to stop staff taking industrial action,
claiming any such action could have potentially “fatal
consequences” for service users. It was awarded a seven-day ex
parte injunction, which Unison successfully challenged. High Court
judge Mr Justice McKay overturned the order, clearing the way for
the ASWs to work to rule. It was at this point that negotiations
between the council and the union picked up again and at the end of
February the council finally agreed to pay the backdated

The question that Nottingham Council’s action raises is whether its
response has set a precedent that other councils will follow.
Andrew Lowe, acting director of social services at Nottingham, says
it was “a unique circumstance” that prompted the move. He adds:
“Other local authorities may feel they need to take some protection
so they can fulfil their statutory responsibilities.”

Perks is hopeful that other councils will not pursue the same legal
recourse: “The court was saying there was a legitimate problem that
needed to be resolved and slapping an injunction on wasn’t the

Social care staff face an ethical dilemma if they strike or take
industrial action over the impact it may have on clients. In
residential care settings it would only take a few workers to
strike before residents feel the effects. Les Bright, interim
director of the Relatives and Residents Association charity,
says:”Most care workers, in common with others who hold such
sensitive posts, are loathe to take any steps that may put those
they care for at risk.”

But in some instances not all service users will be against social
care staff taking industrial action. Foulds says: “It may even be
the case that service users would support action to achieve the
better services they deserve.” However, she adds that it is
possible for strike action to result in some of the public
responding angrily and losing confidence in staff.

Service users can become confused as to why staff are striking,
according to Mike Walker, director of negotiations at the
Employers’ Organisation. He argues that industrial action damages
the impression of a service for users, those who pay for it and the
political will of those who devote time and energy to supporting

Picking up on this, McKitterick says that striking social care
staff should recognise that they do not have the “automatic
support” of the public that doctors and nurses often do. “We must
all be sensitive to the risk that we will lose public support and
that the public, including politicians, have a long memory,” he

If industrial action had gone ahead in Nottingham, Perks says the
Unison branch would have wanted to explain to the public why it was
an important issue for them. “We would have only got their support
if we had been responsible and explained there was emergency cover

It is commonplace for a local authority to negotiate with a union
for “life and limb” coverage to be arranged if a strike takes
place. This means that service users with the most acute needs are
still able to access the help they rely on and are not left high
and dry. Unison advises its branches to agree emergency cover
arrangements with their employers and Lowe says this sort of
agreement is part of the way “normal, responsible industrial
relations” are conducted. For those involved in industrial action,
he advises that both parties communicate, liaise and “have the
courage to submit to arbitration”.

Social care staff often choose to work in a caring profession
because they are committed to improving people’s lives. Could this
be part of the problem? Do employers take advantage of their
staff’s goodwill and assume they can treat them badly because they
will always put users first? Managers should never “take the good
will and commitment” of their staff for granted, McKitterick says,
and urges employers to try to resolve any industrial

Whether or not there is an increased militancy among social care
professionals, clearly the sector is striving to enhance its public
image following disastrous cases like that of Victoria Climbi’, and
to raise its professionalism by attracting high quality staff.
Undoubtedly part of this process will include improving industrial

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