This week’s Observer newspaper splashes the story of care workers in Doncaster entering their 48th day of strike action against pay cuts of up to 35% and a new lower grade for new starters, on its front page and across inside pages.
As chair of Unite’s housing branch I deal with members facing similar pay cuts, unable to pay their rent and often in extreme distress. A recent feature in the trade journal Inside Housing (July 2014) quotes an unnamed senior figure in the sector as saying that Unite has become more “aggressive”. The evidence given is a quote from Unite general secretary Len McCluskey urging members to ‘prepare for the battles that lie ahead’ and to adopt ‘a mentality to win, whatever it takes’. I have to say that, left with no alternative, that is exactly what our members want - and that is why we have backed a number of strikes recently.
The Observer coverage is significant, giving the Care UK Unison members on strike unequivocal support over several pages with its editorial declaring that “A fair society should prize its care workers”. It is hard to remember the last time a mainstream national newspaper gave such clear support to a strike. The Observer is reflecting a popular mood; there is a basis to win wide support for a fight to defend pay and service standards in the sector. Len McCluskey is quoted expressing concern that the privatisation of social care would be copied in the wider health service following the government’s reforms to encourage competition between health providers. He says: “Since the government’s health act came in to force, 70% of health services put out to tender have gone to the private sector.” This struggle is also part of our fight to save the NHS.
Sadly, when we raise the need to explore an alternative approach our negotiators are all too often subject to lectures about ‘the market’. We say that for employers to trample over their staff while cutting each other’s throat to win contracts on price not only hurts their staff but undermines the vital services the staff provide. Our members often tell me they are shocked by the contempt that some of the new generation of executives show for real issues of service quality; their priority being cost saving and boosting the surplus.
Unite has called on employers to talk to us about a national agreement to protect sector standards and to bring an end to competition by wage cuts. Employers sometimes tell our negotiators that they regret pay cuts and are concerned about the impact on services. They claim they have no choice because their competitors are doing the same. A national agreement on sector standards meaning that workers were paid the ‘rate for job’ could put a stop to that. In Scotland a national agreement already exists with Unite; why not an agreement in England and Wales? If ‘social housing’ providers would remember their claimed social purpose this could be a practical start.
Care UK is owned by a tax avoiding private equity company, but sadly some ‘not for profit’ housing associations that we deal with behave in exactly the same way. At One Housing Group for example our members took sustained industrial action in response to very similar proposals to cut the pay of front line staff by up to £8,000 per year. At the same time the Chief Executive, Mick Sweeney has been regularly increasing his pay year on year. We were able to come to an agreement which moderated the impact of pay cuts but then they took retribution by sacking Unite rep Bryan Kennedy. Staff have taken two sets of four day strike action in protest. It should be noted that a few years ago the same organisation was involved in a victimisation dispute following the sacking of Unison rep Debbie Cordrey. Before strike action for our rep, Unite’s regional secretary in the London and Eastern region, Peter Kavanagh, wrote to the One Housing Chair Anthony Mayer asking to discuss the industrial relations problems of the organisation with the hope of averting the need for strike action. Mr Mayer did not reply himself and the organisation sent a short letter dismissing the chance to talk.
Mayer has spoken of his “huge admiration” for what the government is trying to do (24th August 2012), Mick Sweeny the CEO has spoken at Conservative Party conference calling for reduced regulation, and the organisation boasts of being able to undercut directly provided NHS services by 80% - their corporate positioning is clear. But the harsh internal culture that suppresses internal dissent and questioning is perhaps more concerning in an organisation working with vulnerable clients. Sacking union reps is part of this. The culture can be glimpsed from the disciplinary cases that we handle and is revealed in responses to a survey on bullying carried out by Unite. 70% of respondents said they were subject to bullying. They report: anxiety, fear of going in to work, refusal of reasonable requests for leave, threats, etc. A common feature of recent abuse cases has been a lack of staff ‘voice’. A clear danger of this culture is that it will adversely impact on care and support for the vulnerable.
Islington Labour councillors have expressed concern at the policy of pay cuts for front line staff and increases for executives. Following a highly unusual unanimous vote of the full council, Labour housing cabinet member James Murray has written to One Housing expressing concern at the treatment of our rep Bryan Kennedy.
Recent moves within St Mungos – Broadway, the newly merged homelessness agency, to impose changes and cut pay are a worrying sign that previously more responsible employers are moving in the wrong direction. The new management seems keen to trample on agreements and cut pay. We are clear that we will stand by our members and fight to reverse this tide.
We hope that other councils will, like Islington, seek to hold organisations such as One Housing to account.
Commissioning bodies should question carefully whether the organisations they use have appropriate staff management and remuneration policies – councillors can have a role here too.
Councils should also look at taking outsourced services back in house.
Responsible care providers should talk to us about a national agreement to stop the race to the bottom and to protect sector standards.
Paul Kershaw, Chair Unite LE/1111 branch