The College of Social Work’s alliance with UNISON has been the subject of some contention over the past year. Social workers who sign up to the College when it becomes operational in January will automatically become members of the union.
The College’s rationale in seeking the partnership is, however, very clear, as outlined in an article for Community Care in June by interim co-chairs Maurice Bates and Corinne May-Chahal.
“Given that we want at least 45,000 social workers to join us over the next four years, it makes good sense for us to partner UNISON because it already has about 40,000 social work members in England, far more than any other organisation,” they wrote, pointing out that UNISON is recognised by the employers of most social workers.
“It will be relatively easy to market College membership to them, optimising our chances of finding the large numbers we seek.”
For its part, UNISON is adamant that its experience of similar agreements in other professions will offer tangible benefits for members of the College.
For example, it has been working with the British Association of Prosthetists and Orthotists since 2010, when they entered into a service level agreement. People joining BAPO automatically become members of UNISON, and the partnership has provided extra advice and support to professionals primarily working for private companies, says Sian Rabi-laleh, a national officer in UNISON’s health group.
“UNISON has been able to gain recognition to negotiate in some of those companies, including a large private company that makes artificial limbs,” she says.
BAPO members are entitled, among other things, to support and representation from UNISON on professional conduct matters, indemnity insurance, preferential rates from UNISON’s affinity partners (for example, car insurance), and access to UNISON welfare support and financial assistance.
This partnership is on a relatively small scale – BAPO has around 700 members – but UNISON has also been providing services to a much larger membership body, that of the British Association of Occupational Therapists, for almost two decades.
According to the BAOT, the alliance is as relevant now as it was when the organisations initially decided to work together in 1993.
“BAOT was a trades union in its own right but we were small and finding it hard to get our voice heard,” recalls its chief executive, Julia Scott.
“We needed to be prepared for local negotiations on terms and conditions as well as be part of the collective bargaining that was happening across the public sector. The best way to achieve this was via a partnership with one of the larger unions with a strong representation among the health and social care workforce and UK-wide coverage.”
Scott says collective bargaining has been a “huge and important benefit” stemming from the agreement, which gives automatic membership of UNISON to the majority of BAOT’s 29,000-plus members – except those outside the UK or those solely self-employed in private practice. She also points to the impact of personal support in the workplace from more than 500 UNISON/BAOT stewards.
“They support any member who is being investigated by the Health Professions Council, offer specialist development opportunities, support and encourage a growing stewards’ network, provide briefings on workplace issues and support our influencing activities,” she adds.
With BAOT members facing “unprecedented changes” in the public sector, Scott believes the relationship with UNISON will become “even more important to our members at an individual level”.
It doesn’t take too much effort to draw parallels with the challenges and the pace and scale of reforms facing social workers – in the shape of funding cuts and the move to greater personalisation of services to name but two – so undoubtedly the College will be hoping that its members will similarly benefit from the resources of a major, national union.
College of Social Work membership arrangements
● Existing members of UNISON will pay the College a top-up subscription of £60 per year, which will get tax relief.
● Other new, employed members of the College will pay £270 per year for joint membership of the College and UNISON and tax relief will apply to their fee.
● Self-employed social workers will also pay £270 for College membership, which includes relevant insurances, eg, professional indemnity, plus their own cover for conduct and Independent Safeguarding Authority hearings.
● Associate members will pay £60, but won’t be eligible for the full range of College services.
● Students (affiliate members) will pay £10 for joint membership.
● College members are free to opt out of UNISON membership if they wish, though the College anticipates that most will choose to join UNISON as part of the £270 joint fee. Members are also free to join other trade unions but the joint membership arrangement will only be with UNISON. If they choose to join another trade union, they will pay the standard College membership fee and then make their own arrangements with the other trade union.