The biggest social work union, UNISON, is preparing to ballot its members to take industrial action over this year’s pay offer from council bosses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Unlike fellow unions GMB and Unite, UNISON is not consulting its members on the offer of a £1,925 rise for 2023-24 but moving straight to a ballot on taking strike action or action short of a strike, such as working to rule.
The union, which represents an estimated 40,000 social workers across the UK, is balloting members on an employer-by-employer basis meaning that council staff could walk out in some areas but not others, depending on the outcome of the votes. According to government rules, at least 50% of members must turn out for action to follow.
However, because of UNISON’s need to check members’ data before starting the ballot, it will only commence in May, prompting criticisms from employer leaders about the length of the process and the potential for any industrial action not to start until September.
Unite and GMB’s consultative ballots have just opened and will have concluded by the start of May, meaning both may then trigger industrial action ballots themselves should their members follow union leaders’ recommendations and reject the offer.
Council and schools staff ‘opposed to £1,925 offer’
Explaining its approach to the ballot, UNISON’s head of local government, Mike Short, said: “Government rules mean there’s a lengthy timescale for any industrial action ballot. This one is particularly complex with roughly 370,000 workers to be contacted at around 4,000 employers. That’s a lot of data to check before the vote opens.
“Balloting each employer separately allows the union to respond where there’s the greatest strength of feeling. It was clear from discussions around the regions that many council and school staff were intent on rejecting the offer. It made sense to focus efforts directly into a ballot.
“But there’s still plenty of time for employers to think again and return to negotiations with a better offer that recognises the workforce and the need to protect essential services.”
Employers have said their offer of a £1,925 rise for most staff and a 3.88% increase for those earning over £49,950 is “full and final”, and would pressure on already tight budgets. The deal would be worth up to 6.4% for social workers.
The three unions put in a claim in January for a 12.7% rise, based on wages rising by two percentage points above the then predicted average rate of retail price index (RPI) inflation for 2023, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). The OBR’s prediction for RBI across 2023 has since come down, from 10.7% to 8.9%, while its forecast for the government’s preferred consumer price index (CPI) measure of inflation is 6.1%.
Social work pay lower than in 2012
While the £1,925 increase received by council staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2022-23 was the biggest cash rise in many years, it represented a significant real-terms pay cut given the high rate of inflation. Council pay rises have also lagged behind inflation over most of the previous 12 years, resulting in local authority adults’ social workers were earning less last year than they were in 2012.
While social workers have not walked out in Great Britain recently, practitioners have recently taken strike action over pay in Northern Ireland – where they are employed by the NHS rather than local authorities. Practitioners in the province are also taking ongoing action short of a strike, involving not putting in overtime or covering vacancies, in a campaign for safer staffing levels.
‘Hugely frustrating delay’
In a letter to council chief executives issued earlier in the month, employers’ secretary Naomi Cooke, who leads negotiations for the local authorities, said: “If UNISON meets the threshold for lawful industrial action to take place, its timetable means such action may not start until September, more than six months after the employers’ offer was made.
“This potential very lengthy delay is hugely frustrating and will mean many months of uncertainty for employers and employees, whom I am sure you will agree, deserve their pay award as soon as possible.”