In early November, unions accepted this year’s local government pay offer for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, following an eight-month-long dispute.
The pay rise is £1,925 for staff outside London earning up to £49,950, with a 3.88% hike for those on higher wages than that. Outer London staff will receive a £2,226 rise while colleagues in inner London will get a £2,352 hike up to a defined salary threshold.
The deal is worth about 4-6% for social workers, despite unions asking for a 12.7% pay rise in February to exceed inflation, which was then about 10%.
During the spring and summer, UNISON balloted its members on taking industrial action. But despite a positive vote in some areas, it rejected strike action in favour of a negotiated settlement with employers.
The GMB carried out its own strike ballot in September and October but did not secure a mandate to strike. Unite was the only union that, following a ballot, started a campaign of local strikes, which is still ongoing.
The length of the dispute means staff are getting their annual pay rise eight months after it was due – April 2023 – during which time many have struggled with the cost of living.
When asked whether they would fight for a better deal next year or opt for accepting a pay rise they deemed inadequate on time, opinions were divided.
In a Community Care poll that amassed 441 votes, over half of respondents (57%) said that, come next April, they’d prefer to get their pay rise, “even if it’s not the best”.
The rest (43%) said they would fight for a better deal, even if they didn’t succeed.
Loss of trust in unions
Commenting on this year’s deal, many social workers said their trust in unions had been considerably depleted by two years of “uncoordinated” pay negotiations.
“Genuine question, when was the last time the three unions actually negotiated a meaningful increase to an original offer on a national level (not ad hoc or individual arrangements like at Wrexham or Newham),” asked one reader.
“Two years back to back, both [times] taking eight-nine months to implement what was originally offered. I’m not sure the confidence would be there to reject anything offered in 2024-25, given the recent track record. I would love for them to work [in a] co-ordinated [way]and be ready to ballot by March/April collectively.”
Another said that the eight-month wait had had dire effects on lower-paid social workers.
“People needed this in April. They’ve achieved nothing other than placing lower and middle-paid workers in increased poverty. They should be ashamed of themselves. Here’s a plan, agree to the 2024-25 rise now at £1,925 again and stop messing with people’s financial lives.”
“Shockingly uncoordinated approach year on year from supposedly nationwide unions, whose hierarchy seems completely out of touch with their membership,” added Sam Ryder.
He suggested that if unions were now targeting the 2024-25 pay offer, they should take advantage of the time until April 2024 to strategise and draft responses in advance.
Memberships at risk
Some social workers reported they were contemplating cancelling their union membership as a result.
“I am seriously thinking about cancelling my membership because, [based on] the past two years, it looks like our next pay rise will be £1,925 and paid in December 2024,” said Dave Rigg.
“Members are struggling. The unions need to get their acts together and fight for a fair pay rise for 2024.”
“I am on the verge of cancelling [my membership],” said another practitioner. “All these months we’ve wasted and they haven’t stood together!!”
Mark R, who revoked his membership last year, said he was glad as it had been “poor value for money”.
“I don’t regret coming out one bit following two years of frustration at how the union dealt with a number of issues, both nationally and within the council I work for.”
‘If you don’t fight, you’ll always lose’
However, other practitioners maintained that unions were needed more than ever – but they were only as strong as their members.
“Can I just remind those who complain that every single member is the union? A union is only as strong as its members are prepared to be activists,” said Lin Newton.
“Stay in the union, recruit new members, and get active. If you fight, you may lose; if you don’t fight, you’ll always lose!”
Her thoughts were echoed by Joe, who argued that unions couldn’t do much if members didn’t come together and agree to strike.
“[This is] quite sad for a profession that should promote social justice; it can’t even promote justice for those who work in the profession.”
“The only reason we were offered £1,925 was because of the unions,” added Andy, another social worker. “If there weren’t any, we would probably have gotten 0% or £100-£200 a year before tax.”
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