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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