SWU General Secretary John McGowan highlights the complexities of strike and expresses disgust for the proposed new trade union legislation

SWU General Secretary John McGowan speaking at the GFTU conference

The UK Government have confirmed plans to introduce anti-worker legislation that will require key public services to maintain a minimum level of service during union strike walkouts, severely blunting the impact of strikes.

The UK already has the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world thanks to the changes implemented in the Trade Union Act 2016 and this legislation is one of the present reasons why I, as General Secretary of the union, am unable to instruct SWU members to strike. Another factor is the dominance of large unions in social care who just don’t engage with or seek out the support of specialist unions like SWU when implementing strike discussions or inclusion in collective bargaining.

Although the Labour Party have been airing their disgust with the new proposals it is also worth noting that Labour failed to commit in any way to reversing the damaging Trade Union Act 2016 introduced by David Cameron’s UK Conservative Party with its anti-union amendments to the initial Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, or any of the other anti-worker Acts which have been introduced since the 1980s

As a union for and run by social workers, we are aware of the high level of frustration among social workers and the pressure that everyone in the social work profession is under. SWU continues to campaign and lobby government to address this and to create a sustainable workforce.

Three decades worth of anti-worker Acts limits the possibility of a national social work strike action

We hear some BASW and SWU members calling for strike but, unfortunately, there isn’t an automatic legal right to strike in the UK.

In order to go on strike, a recognised trade union in the workplace must follow the conditions set out in the Trade Union Labour Relations Act 1992. A national social worker strike would be untenably complex due to the multiple workplaces and job roles covering social work in voluntary, health, Independent and public service settings. Therefore no union covering social work can arrange a national social work strike under the current legislation. Social Workers belong to multiple unions including SWU, UNISON, GMB, UNITE, Community, NAPO and possibly some others.

The proposed ‘anti strike Bill’ would give employers even more power – including being able to sue unions and dismiss workers who refuse to break their own legally held industrial action in the health, education, fire and rescue, transport, border security and nuclear sectors.

Large unions dominate

Due to the objections of other large and generic unions, we presently do not have the legal consultative ballot mandate for local strike / voting action, and the system for balloting SWU members is both legally complex and costly. Sadly, this has prevented us from holding collective bargaining agreements with Local Authorities and Health Boards for negotiating pay scales. Nonetheless, my door is always open to assist other unions in their campaigns and strike action. As far as I am concerned, we should all be ‘on the same side’ and it is crucial that social workers have the protection and advantages of union membership regardless of which trade union they choose to join.

The majority of specialist UK Trade Unions are in a similar position; there are 131 ‘statutory’ registered trade unions in the UK and the majority of these do not have a legal mandate for strike. Strike action is only possible where an employer recognises a trade union and, between them, they decide on the scope of negotiations – this is dominated by the large generic unions.

Although we do not have the right to strike, the important point is that we have the legal right to represent our members individually or together on larger issues in the workplace and this has been effective and life changing for SWU members. This covers a variety of issues and successful interventions for our members.

I will end this by saying that the core purpose of unions in a modern society is not only to protect their members and negotiate improvements in their pay and conditions, but also to promote professional standards and engage constructively with all stakeholders and employers for the benefit of service users, colleagues and the social work profession.