John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union provides an overview of the complexities of implementing strike action

Despite the regular call out for strike from some BASW and SWU members; unfortunately, there isn’t an automatic legal right to strike in the UK.

Difference between British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and Social Workers Union (SWU)

Membership of the SWU is an additional benefit to members of BASW and our membership fee is set low for BASW members (members can join SWU without BASW but the rate is the same). SWU is an independent trade union and is proud to be associated with BASW but our exclusive legal status as a Trade Union means that SWU members are better protected and their rights to representation in any meeting with an employer are safeguarded. 

Only Membership of SWU will guarantee employment representation from a Trade Union officer.  As BASW is a professional association not a union, members are not guaranteed employment representation if an employer does not recognise BASW or refuses access. Therefore, it is important to join the trade union SWU, and to continue your membership to make sure it does not lapse.  SWU and BASW work together through a cooperation agreement to provide a highly beneficial and cost effective optional joint membership.

Legal bit – the right to strike

All union business is conducted under the Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidations) Act 1992 – TULRCA for short. The legality of the act provides legal recognition to trade unions and their right to organise and represent members. Annually SWU and BASW deal with over 3000 duty calls from members.  There are 131 ‘legal’ statutory trade unions in the UK (as of 31st March 2022) and SWU is in the top 35 of UK Trade Unions by membership size.

SWU is a legal trade union with over 15,000 members. At SWU, we have a legal right to represent social workers because we are an independent certified Trade Union and ratified in Section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 and further regarding the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) Code of Practice.  All our Trade Union Officers and SWU work reps are entitled to attend disciplinaries and grievances on behalf of our members regardless of whether we negotiate in collective bargaining or not, and regardless of what other trade unions may say to the contrary.

Despite the regular call out for strike from some BASW and SWU members; unfortunately, there isn’t an automatic legal right to strike in the UK. To go on strike, a recognised trade union in the workplace must follow the conditions set out in the TULCRA. The complexity is enhanced due to the multiple workplaces and job roles covering social work in voluntary, health, Independent, and public service settings.

The system for balloting SWU members is legally complex and we presently do not have the legal consultative ballot mandate for strike / voting action as we do not hold collective bargaining agreements with Local Authorities and Health Boards re: negotiating pay scales. Sadly this is because other large and generic trade unions have objected to it.  Many specialist UK Trade Unions are in a similar position.  For SWU, we can’t simply join a proposed strike action / strike ballot if we are not part of the consultation group which in social work is dominated by UNISON, UNITE, and GMB.  Without collective bargaining agreements we are not legally able to do this. Where more than one union decides that it wishes to ballot members working for the same employer in connection with the same dispute, the arrangements for the different ballots should be co-ordinated.

Our door remains open to assisting the large unions with our official support for any proposed action.

How do Acas work?

Acas is an independent public body that receives funding from the government. We provide free and impartial advice to employers, employees, and their representatives on employment rights best practice and policies.

Recognition in the workplace

The Social Workers Union offers our wholehearted support to colleagues in large public sector trade unions who are considering voting regarding industrial action in relation to pay issues. SWU is equally committed to supporting where possible the main issues around pay levels. The starting point is that any ballot regarding Social Work pertains to Local Government and Health Employees. As indicated previously, SWU is not currently part of the negotiations on main pay issues. Indeed, we have previously been blocked re: Collective Bargaining applications and Trade Union Congress membership by three large generic trade unions who object to our social work specialism:

Collective bargaining and strike action is only possible where an employer recognises a trade union and between them, they decide on the scope of negotiations. This is separate from representation where we have a legal right in the workplace.

To be recognised in any social work workplace SWU must gain voluntarily recognition from the employer, or we must have a percentage of workers signed up as members, at which point SWU can apply legally to force the employer in question to recognise us. An application for statutory recognition will only usually be successful where the employer employs more than 20 social workers, and the union has the support of the majority of workers. This means that ACAS will require evidence of at least 10% membership in the relevant bargaining unit and be satisfied that a majority of workers are likely to favour recognition.  If successful in the future with statutory applications, we would then need to ensure that we had representatives on each collective group. Therefore, the need to be active and sign up as a SWU Union Contact / Workplace Representative is important to enable this in the future.

For trade unions to run a lawful ballot they must send all members affected by the dispute a ballot to complete and return in the post, reach the required threshold in terms of turnout, give the correct amount of days’ notice to the business before going on strike if enough members vote in favour, and meet a whole host of other conditions. Membership at SWU has grown significantly and with more members we will be in a stronger position to engage in this process.

By gaining recognition in the workplace the union can undertake collective bargaining negotiations and bring disputes to the employer on behalf of its members, such as asking for improved pay and conditions. If the dispute isn’t resolved, it can ballot its members on whether they want to go on strike.  However, we can still do this separately regarding workplace issues and representation.

National Joint Council (NJC)

For workers in local government and schools, pay and other terms and conditions are determined by a negotiating body; the National Joint Council (NJC) for local government services.

The NJC is made up of representatives from trade unions and the employers. The agreements they reach after their negotiations are contained in the “Green Book” which is available to download from the Local Government Association. 

The NJC covers over 1.5 million local government and school workers and so is an extremely important negotiating body. It also has a wider footprint in that other organisations in the public and private sector follow the NJC’s agreements.

The NJC for Local Government Services has 28 members:

Employers’ Side – 14 members, of which are:

  • Local Government Association – 9 members
  • Convention of Scottish Local Authorities – 3 members
  • Welsh Local Government Association –1 member
  • Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Services Board – 1 member

Employees’ Side – 14 members

Why join SWU with a BASW Membership

BASW is the Professional Association for Social Workers and supports social workers at every stage of your social work career.  SWU is a full member of the General Federation of Trade Unions and the Future Social Care Coalition, collaborating significantly with other unions and organisations. SWU is a certified and listed Trade Union, which means SWU Advice and Trade Union Officers have the right to represent our members – individually and together on larger issues. SWU will continue to apply for Local Authority bargaining recognition.

Our skilled Advice and Representation Trade Union Officers provide quality representation to SWU and BASW members. Although we do not have collective bargaining; the important point is that we have the right to represent SWU members individually or together on larger issues and this has been effective and life changing for SWU members. This covers a variety of issues and successful interventions for our members; for example, Professional Practice, Reorganisation, Terms and Conditions, Contractual Issues, Physical Health, Mental Health, Workplace Stress, Retirement, Bullying and Harassment, Misconduct, and Discrimination.

SWU is a union specifically for social workers and run by social workers with a breadth of knowledge and experience of the profession. Regardless of the opposition from some large unions, SWU will continue to apply for Local Authority bargaining recognition. Collective Bargaining within Local Authorities is something we may consider in the future, but it is a prolonged and complicated process which would involve extra staffing which would come at a membership cost to implement.

Our growing team of SWU Union Contacts assist in growing our Union via promoting and encouraging membership, and, as we grow in strength and numbers, we are more able to consider such actions. 

We are committed to campaigning through our ongoing work particularly the Professional Working Conditions campaign, SWU Campaign Fund, and from the funding of the UK Austerity Action Group.