Social worker strike action is set to hit a fifth English council within the past year.
Out-of-hours practitioners at Wiltshire Council have voted to stage walkouts in protest at a plan by the authority to reduce the unsocial hours payments that they receive.
The strike would make Wiltshire the fifth area in England in which social workers have downed tools over local pay-related issues since April 2023, on the back of walkouts at South Gloucestershire, Swindon, Barnet and Brighton & Hove councils.
The GMB announced this week that social workers and other staff in Wiltshire’s emergency duty service and integrated front door had voted to take action, in a dispute over pay changes first proposed by the authority in December 2021.
Proposed reductions to unsocial hours payments
Under these, the 25 affected practitioners would no longer receive a 20% uplift to their salary for working unsocial hours; instead, they would be paid a 20% supplement for each hour they worked. Wiltshire said that the changes were necessary for the financial sustainability of its pay policies.
Wiltshire has offered staff four years’ pay protection once the scheme is implemented, but GMB claimed that the practitioners would lose out on about £500 a month when this was removed.
“These highly skilled social workers face losing around £500 per month each, and some up to almost £750 per month,” said GMB branch secretary. “Currently that unsocial hours pay is in their contract, and they can take that to the bank.”
“Wiltshire Council is proposing a pay cut, with a sugar coating of a 4-year delay in implementation and ‘jam tomorrow’ promises about ‘market supplements’ that could be whipped away as easily as they are given.”
‘Fire and rehire’ claims rejected
The union has also accused the authority of threatening to “fire and rehire” affected staff to force through agreement to the terms – an issue also raised by the Trades Union Council’s South West division – but Wiltshire has strongly rejected this claim.
The authority’s chief executive, Terence Herbert, said: “Throughout this process we have strictly adhered to employment law and always will. We have been seeking to reach collective agreement, but to date the unions have not provided any alternative feasible proposals, although UNISON and Unite did previously get a mandate to agree to the proposed changes.
“It’s important to note there will be no immediate dismissal and offer of re-engagement (also called “fire and rehire”) despite GMB stating that this will be the approach. Our absolute preference remains to reach collective agreement but if this is not possible then we will seek to reach agreement with staff on an individual basis.”
Existing terms ‘not financially sustainable’
He added: “For the sake of the wellbeing of our staff, and our need to ensure our policies are fit for purpose, we have also been clear that this matter cannot remain unresolved indefinitely.
“In this time of making best use of public money, the existing terms and conditions are not financially sustainable in their current form and therefore we’re proposing to pay staff for the actual hours they work during unsocial hours, not a flat rate as it is now.
“If our proposals are agreed then affected staff won’t see any changes to their pay for four years, as we have offered a generous pay protection, and we ensure all salaries are paid at the market rate in line with our pay policy.”
The GMB is yet to agree dates for strike action. Herbert said the council would ensure it had cover in place if necessary.