Readers’ Take: do social workers want to take strike action?

With walkouts appearing to have worked in securing better pay for public sector staff how do practitioners from across the UK feel about doing the same?

Photo by Community Care

Story corrected 4 April 2023

Months of strike action across the public sector have proven fruitful, with an increasing number of disputes being settled – or looking like they might be – with improved pay settlements.

Railway workers from the RMT have voted to accept a better pay offer from Network Rail, and unions for teachers have entered talks with ministers to do the same.

Social workers in Northern Ireland had also previously joined fellow health and social care staff in taking three days of strike action from December 2022 to February 2023.

However, while NHS colleagues have received improved offers in England – which unions are recommending acceptance of in ballots of their members – and talks are ongoing in Wales over an improved offer from ministers, there has been no improvement in the offer for those in Northern Ireland. This means their pay settlement for 2022-23 remains a rise of 4% or £1,400, depending on role.*

The vast majority of social workers across the UK have not walked out, despite being on the receiving end of successive real-terms pay cuts.

Council leaders’ 2023-24 pay offer for practitioners in England and Wales stands at £1,925, which is likely to be worth more in real-terms than this year’s equivalent rise, with inflation set to fall from its current high later this year. However, unions have recommended that members reject the offer, with UNISON, the biggest social work union, planning to ballot members on taking industrial action in a bid for a better deal**. Its fellow unions – GMB and Unite – if their members rejecte

But would social workers support a walkout?

Based on a Community Care poll, which drew 2,586 votes, the answer is yes: 82.99% said they would support a strike over pay this year and only about 13% responded negatively.

The rest (4.33%) said they were uncertain as to whether they would back such a decision.

‘Nothing will change’ without strikes

However, comments in recent Community Care articles on adult social worker pay and the Department for Education’s proposal to cap agency worker pay painted more of a mixed picture.

Some readers said the only way to accelerate change was through striking, but also doubted whether social workers would rise to the occasion.

“Until social workers go on strike for better pay and conditions, inclusive of manageable caseloads, nothing will change,” said one.

Responding to the news of the 2022-23 pay rise for council staff, Laura Kirwan said that unions could only do so much without their members’ support.

“UNISON made it very clear this was the best they could achieve without an undertaking from members to reject the offer and embark on industrial action. Members voted to accept the offer. The unions can only be as strong as their membership. People need to join their union, vote and be willing to fight for our rights or we will continue to be handed pay cuts and reductions in terms and conditions.”

Joe expressed similar frustration, saying: “It’s disappointing that social workers don’t have the unity to strike for current pay and working conditions. Working conditions seem more and more challenging. Social work unions accepted a 4% pay rise, meanwhile, teachers are arguing for 10%, nurses for 19%.”

Social workers’ ability to take strike action is dependent on unions in their workplace being in dispute with their employer; members then must support the action in a secret ballot with sufficient numbers to meet legal thresholds. This will be the process taken with UNISON’s forthcoming ballot.

Social workers in England, Wales or Scotland were not balloted during the 2022-23 pay rounds in relation to strike action across local government, Cafcass or the NHS.

“The fact that social workers have not gone on strike for better pay and conditions just goes to show what a ground-down, isolated and despairing workforce it presently is,” said Tintin.

Working to rule


Photo by: takasu/ AdobeStock

Some readers showed a preference for an alternative approach – working to rule.

This form of industrial action involves strictly abiding by what is written in the employee’s contract and refusing to do anything more, such as overtime. It also requires the backing of a ballot for action short of a strike.

Jamie said that social workers “would never need to actually strike, as they would only need to work to rule, by stopping working overtime and only the hours they are paid for. The system would collapse very quickly.”

The British Association of Social Workers’ latest membership survey, of more than 1600 social workers and students, found that more than three-quarters (74.91%) of respondents felt unable to complete their work during working hours.

Just over half reported working at least an additional five hours in an average week, with 90% of all respondents reporting that overtime went unpaid.

Reader Hazel Norton said: “Far better to commit to a ‘work to rule’…ie arrive at 9am, have a full one-hour lunch break, and leave at 5.30pm. If you work over that time, ensure TOIL is logged and taken within that month as usually advocated.

“With every full-time social worker likely carrying an extra half a post in extra hours worked for free, it would soon bite in. Workers need to stick together on this though for the message to be driven home.”

Here again, social workers from Northern Ireland are ahead of the game. Since December 2022, members of UNISON and NIPSA, the main union for social workers in the province, have been working their contracted hours only, taking breaks and not covering vacant posts, as part of a campaign for safe staffing levels.

Another reader, Shaun, highlighted that work to rule would be a better alternative as “none of us can afford to strike” with “energy prices going through the roof”.

“We need to think outside the box,” he added.

*This article originally said that NHS workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had received an improved pay offer for 2022-23, in reference to an offer that only applied to those in England. We apologise for the error.

**This article has been updated to acknowledge that UNISON is balloting its members for industrial action, rather than to gauge their willingness to take this step.

Would you consider striking or working to rule as a response to the new pay offer? Tell us in the comments below!

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24 Responses to Readers’ Take: do social workers want to take strike action?

  1. SD March 23, 2023 at 1:58 pm #


  2. Ignatious Mwariwangu March 23, 2023 at 2:08 pm #

    Yes, I do not think social workers are valued as compared to NHS staff.

    • Frustrated SW March 23, 2023 at 3:07 pm #

      I agree and we lack unity.

    • Claire Henderson March 23, 2023 at 9:04 pm #

      They never have been, I work in Adult Social care and we were the main support when people were being discharged from hospitals, no resources and shortages of carers and social workers. Until we realise our worth we will always be second best.

    • Joe Bradford March 24, 2023 at 5:00 pm #

      I think it isn’t until we withdraw our labour that the general public and our employers see what we actually do. For far too long social workers have put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. That is why our employers take advantage of us. They know they can overload workers with cases and because of our professionalism and taking responsibility for our cases we will work many unpaid hours to stay on top of our caseloads. The sad thing is we as workers are complicit in this!

  3. Rosey March 23, 2023 at 2:12 pm #

    Yes! Nothing has, or will change if we don’t take some visual action. I like many others are looking at leaving the field to support not only a more balanced lifestyle, but better pay.

  4. Mandy boswell March 23, 2023 at 2:22 pm #

    I would consider working to rule. I I would not want to take strike action. I became a social worker because I believe in what I am doing and I would not want to let children and their families down.

    I believe that working to rule is The best way to make the point that we are exploited without harming those who are vulnerable and rely on us for support.

    Local Authorities have too high expectations of good kind hearted people such as social workers and don’t understand the impact of their ignorant approach to the workforce and the stress that we carry.

    More consideration and understanding is needed by management and councillors to ensure trauma informed practice and commensurate pay across the board.

    • Frustrated SW March 23, 2023 at 3:06 pm #

      How are you planning to enforce your ‘ working to rule’ plan? Most Social Workers have a caseload that forces them to work overtime it’s not that they are not aware of their office time. Social Workers will have enormous pressure when things are not get done and constantly told your case your responsibility. It’s not possible to stick to 9-5.30 working hours.

      • FB March 23, 2023 at 10:46 pm #

        I agree with you. No choice .

      • Fed Up April 8, 2023 at 10:25 am #

        I agree the workload is high along with bureaucracy and he pressure to complete tasks is tremendously stressfull To compete these task on a 9 to 5 basis is unrealistic. I personally do at least 40 hrs per week and get paid for 35.

    • Tahin March 24, 2023 at 9:59 am #

      We let children and families down every working day by doing things we are instructed to do, threatened with sanctions if we don’t do as asked and by sitting Infront of screens filling in meaningless forms, completing nonsensical “assessments”, patting ourselves on the back if we get one fifth of what the people we work with need for them. Note for them as the guiding principle. You are right that given all this striking would ‘damage’ your ‘integrity’ and let “down” your children and their families.

  5. Paul March 23, 2023 at 2:35 pm #

    Social works want to social work, not be forced to food banks for themselves and family

  6. B March 23, 2023 at 3:24 pm #

    I think work to rule is something more noticeable and quicker to achieve more As a single parent I couldn’t afford to strike.

  7. Social worker for strike March 23, 2023 at 7:39 pm #

    “ pay offer for practitioners in England and Wales stands at £1,925, which is likely to be worth more in real-terms than this year’s equivalent rise, with inflation set to fall from its current high later this year”.

    This is fundamentally wrong and shows a poor grasp of understanding of inflation.

    Lower inflation still means inflation, in top of what we already have. And depending on your pay scale, it is not an even % rise.

  8. Paula March 23, 2023 at 10:46 pm #

    Yes we do work more hours than we are paid for and can’t afford to take time off to strike because whose looking is looking after the vulnerable people

    • Lin March 27, 2023 at 10:59 am #

      Social workers are not indispensable and, the aim of any intervention should be to enable families exist without professional involvement. I was on continuous strike for four and a half months 78/79 at a time when poverty was rife rendering whole communities “vulnerable” but we were fighting against public service cuts as well as pay. THAT is the way to support those that have no leverage

      • Frustrated SW March 27, 2023 at 5:06 pm #

        I completely agree with you. No one agree to strike because they have plenty of money in the pocket. This is to look after ourselves and our profession.

  9. Jane March 24, 2023 at 6:11 am #

    We need to work to rule anyway to change the expectation and culture that has been created and save social workers from burn out or leaving the profession. I would be expecting unions to be supporting its members anyway to change this culture as it’s not sustainable in this high pressured job as figures are clearly showing social workers leaving the profession.

  10. L March 24, 2023 at 9:06 am #

    ‘That social workers have not gone on strike for better pay and conditions just goes to show what a ground-down, isolated and despairing workforce it presently is’ – 100 percent agree with this.

    We need to strike as much for better working conditions as pay. We need a reduction in caseload, in paperwork including repetitive panel referrals and forms, admin support staff for every team, and an end to agency workers replacing permanent staff. The only way we will start to have a voice and start to unite is by going on strike.

  11. Claire Henderson March 24, 2023 at 10:00 am #

    Employers count on the fact that Social workers wont strike because of caseloads, I work in adult social care where there are high waiting lists, shortages of staff and hours worked over, its a profession that is not highly regarded or supported, we dont have as many members as the NHS and we are blamed when things go wrong and vilified in the media despite on many occasions there being other professionals involved. All these things contribute to low morale.
    It is time for a massive change in the public sector as this is being slowly underfunded by the Tories for a more capitalist and profitable private sector take over. How its done is by standing together. There are many of us after all.

  12. Roryboy March 25, 2023 at 7:17 am #

    It is my view that social workers have been left with no option other than strike. The government put armed forces on standby when other public sector workers made a united stand. Who could just slip into the role of a social worker, our work is multi facet despite our chosen area of practice we
    All take and make life changing decisions on a daily basis.

    This is no easy fete for the most experienced worker. I have practiced since the mid nineties and I believe I have witnessed government deconstruction agenda at work.

    Currently the family is seen as a private enitity , family ills are seen as failings by families, not due to the increasing levels of inequality in our society. My family had to visit food banks in the 60s due to poverty, I never thought I would be accessing food banks for families in 2023. Change has to come!

  13. Roryboy March 25, 2023 at 7:21 am #

    Action speaks louder than words! We owe it to the profession and the families we serve

  14. Bear March 29, 2023 at 7:04 pm #

    Strike! Strike! Strike!

  15. Sad and stressed April 1, 2023 at 8:32 pm #

    I don’t even want more pay, I just want a job that doesn’t involve 2 days overtime every week to not to completely drown. I qualified 8 years ago, not that long ago, over this time I have seen the time I have to do direct work with families really reduce… the level of stress, burnt out and overwhelm really increase.