Should unions settle their pay dispute with councils?

As unions debate whether to strike or agree a pay settlement with local government leaders, we asked social workers for their opinion

Photo by Community Care

Unions have found themselves at odds over whether to settle or strike over this year’s local government pay settlement.

Earlier this month UNISON announced it would be negotiating a settlement with council leaders in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, after months of dispute.

The union had previously threatened industrial action in response to employers’ “full and final” offer, made in February, of a £1,925 rise for staff earning up to £49,950 and a 3.88% increase for those on higher salaries.

However, despite the biggest social work union planning to settle, Unite and GMB are persisting with the dispute. Unite has announced a series of strikes, the first of which took place on 29 and 30 August, and GMB has plans to ballot members over doing the same later this month.

Two of the three unions need to agree for a negotiated settlement to go through.

The offer was due to come in force on 1 April 2023, but has been delayed due to the dispute.

Based on a Community Care poll, which gathered 1,508 votes, most practitioners (60%) would prefer unions settled, finding a better offer “unlikely”.

Still, 40% of respondents urged unions to “keep fighting for a better deal”.

‘People need the money now’


Photo: Markus Mainka/Fotolia

Opinion was equally divided in the comments section of our article announcing UNISON’s plans.

In many cases, social workers expressed frustration over the timeline of negotiations and the unions’ delayed action.

“I genuinely think more members would’ve voted for strike action if the unions hadn’t dithered for months ‘confirming their data’,” said Jay.

“It feels like momentum has been lost and people are just desperate for their pay rises now.”

This was echoed by Rob, who said: “It’s appalling how long this dispute is taking. The offer was put to them back in February, yet GMB has not yet even held a ballot on industrial action, nearly seven months on.

“People need the money now!”

Another reader, Kerry, said the pay rise was more urgent now as “people have bills and mortgages to pay, and mouths to feed”.

“When [practitioners] have been paying higher mortgage rates for five months, [and facing] astronomical food prices, not to mention the energy prices, they just want to survive.”

Bobby urged unions to settle and “start working towards next year’s increase”.

“Summer’s nearly over, so gas bills will be going up. This should have been resolved and tabled during a time in the year when people are struggling less. As we get closer to winter people [will be] willing to take anything no matter how small.”

‘An appalling offer’

However, some practitioners advocated holding out, with one calling the £1,925 offer “insulting”.

“It’s an appalling offer compared to other public services,” said Wolfie. “Campaigning among all trade unions (those representing more social workers than Unite, UNISON and GMB) for better working conditions, including pay, requires a long and hard fight. £1925 is insulting.”

“I will fully support strike action for social workers,” said Linda Young. “The majority of us would not accept the pay rise on offer and need and deserve a well-earned increase following years of doing without one.”

One reader, Dave, also backed fighting for a better offer, calling the employers’ side secretary Naomi Cooke’s recent comments “patronising”.

Cooke had said that leaders were aware of the “cost-of-living pressures [staff were] experiencing” and so the pay offer “should not be subject to yet further delays”.

“Typical patronising approach from employers,” said Dave. “ The working class were never given anything, we have had to fight for every inch. I will hold out for further.”

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7 Responses to Should unions settle their pay dispute with councils?

  1. Mick Lynch for PM September 1, 2023 at 5:59 pm #

    Social Workers within the UK are an embarrassment when it comes to standing up for themselves on any matter as I would love to know how much of the workforce is in a union.
    Instead of a ‘together we stand’ there appears to be very much a ‘divided we fall’ approach where we can all complain but few actually do something about it.

    Nearly every public service has been striking in recent years and have cited austerity and below inflation wage increases and the biggest Union planning to settle due to low numbers voting. BASW although not a recognised union with employers also doesn’t speak up for the workforce as much as it really should upon pay and mileage issues either.

    The BMA announced the joint stoppages when it unveiled the results of a second ballot of junior doctors in which 98.4% of those who took part voted to keep on striking for another six months, until early 2024. Consultants intend to continue holding strikes in their own right too. The turnout was 71%, which meant the doctors’ union easily met the 50% threshold under trade union law.

    Now if only within Social Work there was that level of resolve.

    • anonymous September 4, 2023 at 10:45 pm #

      This article is referring to social workers, but unison’s recent ballots are for all local government workers.

      Therefore a low turnouts are not just social workers not voting to strike, but all local governments workers of which there are thousands across the country.

      I do agree though that social workers should be better unionised. Personally I am not as I can’t afford the monthly union fees. Adds up to 270 a year. That’s 1k over a four year period. Rather have that in my pocket paying bills.

  2. David September 2, 2023 at 9:49 am #

    Although pay is an issue I would like to think this is also concerning overall working conditions, including heavy workloads with workers having to work extended hours way beyond their contracted hours with little chance of taking TOIL, the importance of work/life balance, manager bullying in the workplace, …….

  3. Shaun September 2, 2023 at 1:38 pm #

    Part of what bothers me is unions at branch level not always having great plans about recruiting to increase membership and therefore challenge matters like local government pay rises with a large volume of motivated numbers. This compromises the ability to take any action that has a meaningful impact. Of course there are hostile and possibly unfair anti trade union laws, which definitely impact as well, but TU’s have known about these for a while.

  4. Phil Sanderson September 14, 2023 at 11:02 pm #

    Unison should not overide the other unions when they are balloting. Traditonally at least 2 of the 3 main unions have to agree the settlement so if Unison go ahead alone it is a kick in the teeth for other union members. I am not holding my breath though as Unison already undermined the RCN when they accepted the crappy pay deal in the Health Service

    • Fed up September 29, 2023 at 1:29 pm #

      Two out of three must agree, of which one must be unison.

  5. matt September 25, 2023 at 10:18 am #

    Unison are pathetic and need to properly stand up for the workers they are supposed to represent.

    On of the reasons pay has devalued so catastrophically in this country over the last 13 years is unions not sufficiently looking after there members….pull your finger out!