Debate on the role of unions in social work

    We asked:- Do social workers need their own dedicated
    trade union?

    Here are some of the responses we received.

    Dear Editor,

    I was delighted to see the article in this weeks edition, which I
    read with a growing sense of annoyance. An independent trade union
    just for social work staff does exist and has since 1978, a fact
    which is well known to all the contributors quoted in your article,
    and that is my own Union The British Union of Social Work Employees
    (BUSWE). Some facts might help to explain my annoyance. BUSWE was
    established as part of BASWA at their annual conference in 1978
    when a motion was passed agreeing “the establishment of a new,
    independent organisation for BASWA members to pursue Trade Union
    Activities.” For those who have forgotten I have a copy of the
    first recruitment letter sent out which has the BASWA address on
    its logo.

    Oddly Ian Johnson forgot to mention that in his homage to the “size
    does matter” importance of Unison .I am saddened he takes the view
    that only a conglomerate union, only 3% of whose members are Social
    Workers, can properly represent the profession. In 1979, following
    threats from NALGO, now a constituent part of Unison, BASWA
    declined any further support to BUSWE and we have existed
    independently ever since. Since 1991 we have been seeking
    affiliation to the TUC but guess what at every turn Unison have
    opposed this. The thrust of the article, that the profession needs
    a serious and independent voice able to articulate and represent
    the real aspirations of social workers cannot be argued against.
    Under the current “leadership” the profession has been brought to
    the position that no-one is sure where we are going, whether we
    will exist even as a separate profession in a few years and the
    press sees us just as a scapegoat and not a valuable servant to

    Oh yes pay and conditions. BASWA and Unison both say in their
    different ways that only the industrial muscle of Unison has
    secured what we now have. That includes pay, which is less than any
    other comparable profession for example, the police, nursing and
    medical, and teaching and which is losing comparability every year
    because unlike them our pay must be included with every other
    category of local government employee. Conditions which, locally
    and nationally employers are chipping away at every year and
    workloads which increase without recognition or recompense. Social
    workers only have no voice in negotiations because Unison won’t let
    them have one. In my estimation to get one now would significantly
    improve the failings of the last few years. For years we have
    campaigned for a general council to be the professional body for
    Social Work. Like others I was at last years CSCC annual meeting
    when that was what we were told we had.

    Today Arthur Keefe and Lynne Berry tells us it’s no more than a
    regulatory body and of little real value in articulating our needs
    and values, and in any case the government is looking to strangle
    the baby at birth as part of its review of quangos. This debate is
    one which is crucial to social work in the future and needed to be
    started, but my plea is not to start again to build a Union from
    scratch but come and join us and use BUSWE as the platform to
    reclaim identity. Decent pay and conditions that properly reflect
    the job that is expected of us, give social work the identity and
    public recognition it deserves. I personally welcome the chance to
    be part of that debate.

    Steve Anslow
    General Secretary

    I feel strongly during these current times of integration and with
    a new Mental Health bill looming that social workers require strong
    union representation of their own. A union which understands the
    unique minority position, especially for mental health social
    workers, of integrating with health care staff, which usually means
    estrangement from social worker colleagues and lack of
    understanding of role from health care colleagues.

    Carrie Akass

    I am not a member of BASW or Unison because neither of these offers
    social workers the industrial support necessary. When I worked in
    Wales I was a member of the National Association of Probation
    Officers [NAPO]. Although a small association it combined very
    successfully the role of professional body and trade union. I
    recommend it as a model for Social Workers. NAPO’s success
    serves to refute the spurious claim by Unison officials that a
    small union cannot work. I believe that there should be a social
    workers union and would join immediately should one be formed
    John Wilson
    Social Worker/ MHO
    Fort William

    Yes we do need our own union. UNISON demonstrates little
    understanding of our needs. As a manager I have found it even less
    sympathetic than when I was a front line worker.

    Vivien Freeman
    Team Manager
    Children with Disabilities Team

    Undoubtedly Social Workers do need their own trade union.  My
    experience of Unison is that they do not serve the interests of
    Social Workers as they should.  We need a Union that is dedicated
    to fighting for the rights and conditions of social workers.

    Russell Chapman

    I have felt for some time that as social workers we should have
    our own trade union.  I think that our specific needs get lost in
    the larger unions and we subsequently lose out.  Other professions,
    such as teachers, are separately represented – why not us?

    Louise Dolphin

    I agree that social workers should have one union to represent the
    needs, pay and conditions of social workers. The present system
    means that workers are affiliated to different trade unions and
    this therefore dilutes the strength of the whole body of workers.
    This was a tactic used by Margaret Thatcher to weaken the trade
    unions in the 1980’s. I myself am new to social work and I am
    amazed that the local authorities continue to bemoan the lack of
    qualified and experienced staff and can allow those with some 20
    years experience leave the job because their qualification is out
    of date. What other occupation would allow this to happen? Do they
    think that the workers have not developed beyond qualification
    during the last 20 years? Who will they pass on their experience
    to? Does anyone care?
    Brian Cranswick
    South Yorkshire


    There has to be an argument for our own union, not on the basis
    of pay but on the basis of accountability. Too often social work
    staff primary focus is about ‘back covering’ rather than an
    knowledge that they are doing a difficult job, under difficult
    conditions, to the best of their ability.

    The public perception of social workers is to say the least, poor
    and is fuelled by constant bad press, and ineffectual
    acknowledgement and support by local authorities. The Climbie
    report highlights deficiencies in all involved yet to my knowledge
    the only person who lost their job was the social worker.

    A union which just represents social workers in their own right can
    recognise the professionalism that we try to attain and advocate,
    support and progress the progression. Perhaps that way we would be
    counted as professionals rather than scapegoats for a society that
    seeks to blame and finds Social Workers an easy target.

    Ian Samaden


    I am a currant member of BASW and a former member of UNISON. I
    left UNISON as I did not feel that it represented the needs of
    social workers. UNISON are a very large union and do not see
    members who are social workers as a priority. Other professions eg,
    teachers have their own union so why do social workers not have a
    union? As a profession our pay, conditions and status has dwindled
    since the 1970s.

    I accept that we will only have a social work union when social
    workers make it happen, and that we all have to play our part in
    this process. As a social work profession we need people with the
    leadership qualities who can start a trade union. The BASW are
    excellent at representing social workers, however they are not a
    trade union and are not involved in negotiations over pay and
    conditions. As a social worker I would welcome an opportunity to
    join a social work union while maintaining my BASW membership.

    Anthony Manning


    A few years back, I decided to become more involved with my
    (then) local union Unison, so I became a steward. However, I only
    ever attended one union meeting and I was the only representative
    of/from social work. The first item was where they agreed to spend
    some £6,000 of union money on seats and a printer for the
    office. The next item was where they agreed to write to the King of
    Thailand to request him to discourage people from eating dogs. I
    left and never returned, but for me, this typifies the reasons
    underpinning the real need for social workers to have their own
    strong union. It is pointless belonging to the same union that
    supports library staff, clerical, park attendants and so on. Social
    workers need their own union like the fire brigade, and

    Stewart Ford


    I have thought for a long time that we need our own trade union
    – like other professional groups. Although we come under Unison,
    their drive for many years has been their lower paid members: they
    do not consider social workers to be low paid. I’m afriad I do.
    While I fully support attempts to raise low pay, social workers
    have lost ground over a long period of time to other similar
    occupations. We have waited long enough to be put on the front
    burner. In my local authority in the last year or so they have
    created a new post of Family Support Assessor/Family Support
    Worker. These posts have salaries that overlap the social work
    scale and notionally require NVQ3 – but they don’t all have
    this by any means. Managers explain this policy by the difficulty
    in recruiting social workers so – rather than address the reasons
    why there is a lack of applicants (one of which has to be to do
    with pay) – they have gone for a cheaper option, with Unisons
    co-operation. These FSA/FSWs are reluctant to do NVQ3 on the job –
    they are now arguing that they should be able to do NVQ 4 because
    they want to go into management. My understanding is that NVQ4 is
    equivalent to the Social Work Degree.  Indeed, our team managers
    are currently being compelled to do NVQ 4 and our senior managers
    NVQ 5. Where this leaves social workers/OTs etc. I can’t see.

    I don’t feel Unison looks after social workers interests
    at all – I don’t even think it is interested in us.  If there
    was an alternative, I would certainly join.  As it is, a committed
    trade unionist for many many years, I have recently cancelled my
    membership because of my lack of trust in Unison. As long as we
    rely on Unison, I don’t think we have any future.

    Kate Kelly


    You’re not kidding….but only as long as it was not muzzled or
    held to ransom or governed by some political bias.

    Social work is on the cutting edge of community needs, and is
    held responsible for its actions no less than the police, firemen,
    NHS or any other public sector organisation and therefore needs
    specialist support and recognition from its own union!!

    Phil Buckman


    If social work and social workers are to continue to have an
    identifiable professional future, then is a good idea to define
    that identity as best we can. A dedicated trade union can only be a
    good thing surely, especially if the continuing transfer of social
    work and social workers to PCT’s, for example, results in the
    progressive reduction of effectiveness of UNISON.

    Social workers need to protect the existing professional value
    base and not see it gradually eroded over time by mergers, reforms,
    redesign and ignorance.

    Ian Newman
    Care Manager


    As a Child Care Social worker who has worked for two different
    local authorities over a number of years, it is my opinion that
    social workers are not good at standing up for themselves and they
    keep letting the local authorities and the government do what they
    want. In real terms I have seen my wages decrease and our work load
    increase. We are becoming more paperwork orientated and spend less
    time with the young people we should be helping. Whilst colleagues
    will complain about it to each other no one will do anything about
    it. It is about time we were recognised as the professionals we are
    and given the recognition we disserve, if there is a national body
    which will start this process with our interests at heart that I
    would gladly join them. We are a service that no one wants but that
    no one can do without and without support we will go under

    David Ludlow

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