Striking alliances

If the Daily Mail ever publishes a dictionary, we could
probably predict its entry for industrial action. “Politically
motivated, inspired by greed, envy and a lack of concern for
others.” Now there’s talk of a growing militancy among social care
staff. This looks like being the last thing to get the positive PR
they so desperately need. But who’s to say they haven’t reason to

Most have good grounds for discontent: unsocial hours, often poor
pay and conditions – particularly in the private sector, little
training and support, difficult situations to deal with and little
value placed on them in the wider world. All the negatives that go
with nursing, but little of the public interest that nurses can
command. Social work is still the only profession that politicians
and editors know they can attack with impunity.

Even the government’s well intentioned recruitment campaign using
the line, “the little things that make a big difference”, seems to
have pressed some of the wrong buttons. Here we see social care
workers operating in a parallel universe, uninhibited by
timesheets, budgetary constraints or agency preoccupations with
merely physical maintenance.

Put together social care and strikes, though, and the headlines
almost write themselves. Suddenly the spectres of “vulnerable
people”, “put at risk”, or “risky people” free to make the rest of
us “vulnerable”, add up to front-page news. It is easy to blame the
workers and play on patronising stereotypes of “vulnerable” service
users. While service cuts and staff reductions are routinely
justified on grounds of “efficiency savings”, working to rule is
more likely to be presented as opening a Pandora’s box of personal
pain and public chaos.

The counter-argument, however, often carries little more
conviction. It is no use social care staff saying they are “doing
it for service users” unless service users and their organisations
are equally involved in the issue. How often are they consulted?
Why should service users want to protect services which they often
see as inadequate and controlling? Why should they want to
safeguard workers’ conditions when workers so often seem powerless
to protect theirs? Why should they care about agencies which often
seem remote and disempowering?

The key yardsticks for judging industrial action must be what it’s
for and who decides. If it is narrowly conceived in terms of rights
and conditions, it is unlikely to enlist any real support, whether
from service users or others. Social work and social care rarely
enter industrial action from a position of strength.

Who now remembers the year-long social work strike in Camden,
London, in the early 1990s? But, over the years, there have been
examples of social care workers struggling alongside service users
and of service users supporting the struggles of social care
practitioners. Service users value the good social care
practitioners who work to support them. They are well able to
distinguish between them and the sometimes oppressive agencies in
which they work.

Most needed here are new alliances between service users and
workers. Earlier this year, Suzy Croft, a social work practitioner
and I, wrote an article for a special issue of the British
Journal of Social Work
called “Service users and practitioners
reunited” in which we argued for new alliances between workers and
service users. We, like many others, see this as only really
effective way in which social work and social care are likely to be
reinvigorated and reformed.

Earlier this month, the Disability Rights Commission, sponsored by
Community Care, organised a public debate called The Right
to Independent Living. So far the only right granted people in
social care is to assessment. By independent living, it is meant
that service users should have the right to whatever support they
need to live their lives on as equal terms as possible as other
people. The conference focused on disabled people, but this model
could apply to all groups of social care service users, including
looked-after young people and disadvantaged families with

Now there’s something worth fighting for. Building alliances,
working together as service users and workers, in pursuit of this
vital goal of independent living, could make a difference. And if
no one listens and there is no other way, direct action may have an
important part to play. Not only might it then unite rather than
divide us. There’s a real prospect of success.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, and is involved in the psychiatric system survivor

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