‘People don’t know we’re here’

Watch out Unison. The forgotten trade union of social care wants your members. Amy Taylor spoke to its general secretary Steve Anslow (pictured)

For a trade union, the British Union of Social Work Employees feels like a secret club. And Steve Anslow, now in his 17th year as general secretary, is the first to admit it.

“I wish it wasn’t like that,” he says. “If we had a wider presence it wouldn’t feel that way, but it does.”

This life on the periphery has come about because a lack of funds has limited the union’s advertising over the years, so admission to the fold depends on word of mouth.

Yet, despite this constraint, membership under Anslow’s tutelage has risen from 1,200 to 3,000. Now moves are afoot to tackle the problem of limited membership and a lack of advertising funds.

The union has experienced financial problems in the past but Anslow says its funds are now “healthy”. Alongside him there are six regional officers, an officer each for  England and Wales, two administrative staff and a professional officer/treasurer. Its members work in local authorities, the private and voluntary sectors and it is the only union recognised by the NSPCC.

Anslow finds it disappointing that most social care workers decide to join public services union Unison rather than Buswe, which specialises in representing social care staff.

“It’s a bloody tragedy,” he says. “The reason Buswe came into existence was because of a recognition that social work needed its own  independent voice in terms of the development of the profession. We think that social work has suffered from us not having been able to become established more widely.”

Pay is an issue Anslow thinks social workers have lost out on. He argues that if there were a strong independent voice for the profession, such as those in the fire service or nursing, pay would have increased more.

He sees Buswe’s lack of advertising as its main hindrance in competing with Unison. “People don’t know we are there and I fully accept that,” he says. “Unless we can  find a way to make clear that there is an alternative and that we can provide as good, if not better, services we will have the same problem.”

Anslow describes the action of Union’s predecessor, the National Association of Local Government Officers, when Buswe was set up as “childish” but will not be drawn on how he thinks the Unison is doing in terms of representing social care staff today.

Although Buswe is no longer linked to the British Association of Social Workers, Anslow says the relationship between the two organisations is “very amicable”. He admits that in the past the two have considered running a joint membership package but will not comment on future joint activities.

With BASW director Ian Johnston recently discussing the need for a strong independent specialised union a new partnership could be on the horizon and with it, perhaps, more members.

In for a pound

Buswe began at the British Association of Social Workers’ annual conference in 1978 where delegates passed a motion to create an independent trade union for social workers and 1,200 each put in £1 to set it up.

At that stage it was called the British Union of Social Workers, had links with BASW and was based at the BASW headquarters in Birmingham. But Nalgo (now part of Unison) objected arguing that the new union’s creation went against an arrangement between BASW and itself and threatened to withdraw cooperation if the association continued to support it.

The threat proved too great and Buswe had to leave its Birmingham base and attempt to survive independently. In 1988 the union moved to its present home in Manchester.

Contact the author
  Amy Taylor


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