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
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!