What sort of world do we want to live in?

White snowdrop flowers grow out of the melting snow on the forest floor

SWU Chair Dave Callow shares his reflections on the importance of unions and hope at the beginning of the 2022 festive season.

In my first blog as chair of SWU, I would like to begin by thanking all the social workers out there whose empathy, understanding and perseverance is perhaps not acknowledged as much as it should be.

Union activity has been a part of my life since I was little and is close to my heart. My dad was an active member of the Transport and General Workers Union, which later evolved into Unite the Union. I grew up with union language and values – of solidarity and looking out for your fellow worker – and this shaped my views and expectations of society. When I qualified as a social worker I knew the union I needed to be a member of was a specialist union, and I knew without a doubt that it had to be the Social Workers Union.

After I joined SWU I was keen to be an active member of the union so I became a Union Contact and then took the Union Contact Phase 2 training. I was elected as a member of the SWU Executive in 2020 , re-elected in 2022 and am now honoured to hold the position of SWU Chair. The union has been very welcoming and I enjoy a close working relationship with SWU’s General Secretary John McGowan.

I’m currently a lecturer at the University of Lincoln where I teach Masters Social Work Students. One of the topics I bring up with my students is protecting themselves on a professional level as social workers, which includes the importance of joining a union and the benefits that come with it. 

Let’s keep talking about the importance of unions over the festive season

2022 has seen union actions filter into the language of our daily lives. The discourse started with pay and conditions, and has expended to also include bigger questions such as “What sort of world and society do we want to live in?” It is my hope that we can maintain the momentum of this conversation over the winter holidays and into the New Year.

In our profession we regularly encountered issues that have only been made worse by years of austerity policies, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the cost-of-living crisis. The people we work with can very often feel left behind by society, and they must be included and advocated for when discussing the type of society we strive to live in.

I am proud to be part of a union that recognises this and with the SWU Campaign Fund – which has been renewed for 2022-2023 – gives its members a unique way to engage and be supported in activism on issues that they are passionate about. Even though the fund is only a year old, is has run several successful campaigns including raising awareness of the current unprecedented scale of UK food poverty with research that is now with the Department for Education.

Hope fuels change

As Eddie Dempsey of the RMT trade union said – “There is power in a union.” And there is. Social Workers who join SWU can ensure their colleagues are supported in what can be a tough, unforgiving world through the Union Contacts scheme.

It really made an impact on me when Eddie Dempsey said during an interview, “Why should you put up with falling living standards year on year, forever? You’re not just consigning your own people now to finding it hard in a cost-of-living crisis. This is about our children. This is about what type of country we have.” He explains that most people want the following “basic things” – which may feel familiar to many of us regarding social work values:

  • “A wage you can live on”
  • “A house you can live in and raise a family”
  • “A health service that’s going to look after you when you are sick”
  • “Education for your kids”
  • “Be able to retire in dignity”

This is where ideas are created and where solidarity is formed.

Social work values also compel social workers to speak up when a cost-of-living crisis effects both the social work workforce and those it is charged to represent. Every single key service has been affected by years of austerity and the cost-of-living crisis and social workers are seeing this happen in real-time. We see how families and communities are affected, and how they’re also scapegoated as being to blame for their own suffering.  When all is said and done the fight for better conditions is all our fight.

The most important part of Eddie’s interview, in my opinion, is that there is always hope. As we know hope can be a very powerful tool for change – and if we can build a fairer society the possibilities are endless.

As a lecturer I see hope in the next generation of social workers, and a trade unionist and a social worker I see hope springing from the most surprising places. Hope may just be a conversation, supporting someone to overcome a problem, or acknowledging what a privilege it is to be able to make a difference in people’s lives in what can be an unforgiving world.

All significant change begins with a small change or a small step – and the first step here being to join a union. The rest we can do together.

I wish you all a peaceful holiday.

A photo of SWU Chair Dave Callow

In solidarity,

Dave Callow, SWU Chair