SWU Conference 2024 – solidarity, activism, and social justice

SWU Conference 2024 attendees hold up limited edition hard copies of the Austerity Action Group's newly updated and launched Campaign Action Pack

This one-day event brought together social workers, students, and trade unionists from across the UK to discuss the common threads running through social work and trade unionism.

SWU General Secretary John McGowan speaking at the SWU Conference 2024.

SWU General Secretary John McGowan began the conference by welcoming attendees to the historic Mechanics Institute in Manchester. He noted, “The growth of the Social Workers Union is further evidence of the progress that SWU makes.” SWU represents thousands of members every year with trade union reps who are qualified in social work and the union campaigns to support members’ interests.

He also encouraged social work students and apprentices to enter the SWU Assignment essay competition which has four prizes of £500 to be won. Entries will be marked by a panel and this year’s markers are Professor Jermaine Ravalier, a member of the Advice & Representation team, and a member of the SWU Executive Committee.

Austerity Action Group launches updated Campaign Action Pack

The Austerity Action Group (AAG), with the support of SWU and BASW, proudly launched the updated Battling the Cost-of-Living Crisis: Campaign Action Pack at the SWU Conference. It is a step-by-step guide on how social workers and their communities can take action against ongoing austerity and the cost-of-living crisis. The pack includes information on everything from how to organise public meetings, rallies, and awareness-raising film nights to setting up petitions, lobbying, and contacting the press.

Daz Hull and Angi Naylor proudly hold copies of the Austerity Action Group's newly launched Campaign Action Pack while standing in front of a SWU better and waving SWU flags.

The first edition was published in 2017 and AAG Vice Chair Peter Unwin said in a message announcing the launch:

“It is significant that social workers – supported by their professional association and specialist trade union – have invested time and effort in keeping the messages of this anti-austerity campaigning pack alive.

“I urge all readers and browsers of this pack to not just reflect on what a great piece of radical work it is, but to make a commitment to act on its contents – it is an ACTION pack, after all!”

Emma Lewell Buck MP states in the pack’s foreword, “[Social workers] are the ones, despite the relentless challenges you’re faced with, who are making a difference every single day. You are the ones who are a voice for those who often can’t speak up. So please keep shouting for them and for all social workers. You are their voice, so make sure it’s loud!”

Angi Naylor, who has been a driving force behind this campaign pack, said, “The Campaign Action Pack is designed to give power back to the disenfranchised – get yourself a copy and use it.”

Download your free copy today: https://swu-union.org.uk/austerity-action-group/swu-basw-aag-campaign-action-pack-2024

Our brilliant keynote speakers discussed impactful activism, the intersection of social work and trade unionism, power and empowerment, and breaking down barriers.

Simon Francis, founding member of Campaign Collective

Simon spoke about his work coordinating campaigns with SWU and also the End Fuel Poverty Coalition. He focused on the SWU Campaign Fund which is an absolutely unique partnership between SWU and Campaign Collective – the only fund of its kind that we are aware of. It provides members of the union with support to campaign on issues that they are passionate about, affect them in their working lives, and affect the people they work with. Any SWU member can put a campaign idea forward by using the application from on the SWU Campaign Fund website.

Simon highlighted past and present campaigns that represented members’ concerns including media representation of social workers, inadequate student bursaries, lack of flexible working conditions, creating neuro-include workplaces, poor working conditions and the ongoing impact of austerity and the cost-of-living crisis, and mouldy homes. The SWU Campaign Fund also offers media training for speaking to the press, and any interested members are encouraged to enquire about this by emailing campaigns@swu-union.org.uk.

The media representation of social work campaign began when members spoke out about their experiences with negative media reporting and the damage it does. Actions from this campaign have included production of a reporting guide which has been adopted by the UK press regulator IMPRESS, a reporting mechanism for unfair negative media coverage, a training session for social workers with press regulator IPSO, and a recent meeting with Ofcom to discuss the media portrayal of the profession.  

Social work student Dave Grimm also spoke about how he and fellow student Lucy Challoner are leading on the social work student bursary campaign in Scotland with the support of the SWU Campaign Fund. A conversation with a colleague in the Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW) made them realise that there was something they could do about the hardship being caused by inadequate student bursaries. Their petition was the largest one ever submitted to the Scottish Government Petitions Committee and was supported by a powerful cross-party committee of MSPs. The student led campaign has won postgraduate funding reform and is in conversation with the Scottish government about undergraduate funding.

Dave said, “I’m very proud of what we have achieved and we’re still pushing, as a union should.” He encouraged other members to consider applying to the SWU Campaign Fund to make things better for social workers, as the campaigns impact on a national level and will benefit generations to come. He also gave credit to the 2022 Wales social work student bursary campaign, supported by SWU and BASW Cymru, which won a 50% increase in both undergraduate and postgraduate bursaries.

Dr Neil Thompson, renowned social work author and visiting professor at the Open University

Neil began by asking:

“What do social work and trade unionism have in common? Solidarity and social justice.”

He discussed social work as a form of advocacy and promoting rights that’s parallel with trade unionism and stated, “Social work works best when you have solidarity.” He elaborated that individual wellness is important, but it is also important for teams to pull together and have solidarity at the team level, organisational level, and on an inter-organisation level.

He has observed a rise in an emphasis on providing or commissioning services for people, rather than problem solving and empowerment. Over the past 20 years of providing training, he has noticed a recurring theme of social workers realising that they have been approaching their work with the mindset of “what service can I give these people?” rather than “what are these people struggling with, and what are the possible ways of empowering them to manage their struggles and resolve their issues?”

Neil outlined and discussed the importance of the 3 Rs which he has been talking about for decades: resourcefulness, robustness, and resilience. These are relevant across the board in social work and trade unionism, from supporting activism to supporting good working conditions and job satisfaction. He concluded that trade unionism and social work have so much in common; becoming involved in a trade union will help you with your social work and social work will stand you in good stead with trade unionism.

Sarah Woolley, General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) President and the first female General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union

Sarah Woolley, General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) President and the first female General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union speaks at the SWU Conference 2024. Behind her is the background for Banner Theatre's upcoming performance which includes the Palestinian flag.

Sarah gave an inspiring speech on breaking down barriers, growing the wider trade union movement, and giving a voice to our diverse community of members. She stated, “The trade union movement tends to work in silos but the reality is that your issues are our issues, and we’re definitely more powerful together.”

Throughout her speech Sarah discussed the need for change and to challenge inequalities and related a personal anecdote about how, even after being GFTU President for four years, people can still be patronising about her successes because she is young and female. She said:

“I am determined that our union and the wider movement needs to be more inclusive, and I know that your union is doing a lot around that. I’ve seen some of the blogs that you’ve got around different types of discrimination and they’re brilliant. I particularly like the one around ‘dog whistle’ disability discrimination published in February.”

The trade union movement is vibrant, diverse, and for everyone.

Sarah commended the Campaign Action Pack and also talked about the work the SWU is doing with fellow GFTU affiliate the Association of Educational Psychologists to fight for young people’s futures, anti-austerity campaigns around the right to food, the scourge of zero hour contracts, and the importance of organising and moving forwards together.

Social work students from universities across the UK joined us at the SWU Conference.

A photo of 7 social work students from universities across the UK in front of a stained glass window at the Manchester Mechanics Institue for the SWU Conference 2024.

When asked about SWU, one of the students said:

“The reason I believe that you should join the SWU is because they are social workers that understand the ethics that underpin our practice. You need to be represented by people that understand the humanistic nature of our work.”

Another social work student who has worked with the SWU Campaign Fund said:

“You need solidarity, you need to be empowered by each other, and you need to know that you’re not working in a silo. You need to know that people have your back, and that’s exactly what SWU do for you.”

Attendees learned more about SWU and BASW and what we have to offer to members.

Advice and Representation

It was great to hear from Advice & Representation (A&R) Service Manager Lindsey Huxtable-Dowd and SWU Administration Manager Joanne Marciano about the BASW/SWU A&R Service and the newly developed guidance sheets for members to use.

Lindsey explained that working with the A&R Team is a collaborative approach. Regarding the question ‘what can I do?’ she said:

“If you are experiencing problems in the workplace, the earlier you can address the situation the better. If you’re experiencing stress and burnout, talk to your manager first – talk to your supervisor, try and get that support. Do things to manage your work-life balance, like potentially a flexible working request. You can now make those requests from day one rather than having to wait three months.”

“If you’re experiencing racism, discrimination, and bullying – it’s all too common in social work and we see it every day. We’re still surprised by the things people are experiencing, sadly. If you are in that situation keep notes, take a chronology, and gather your evidence.”

The A&R Team are qualified in social work with a wealth of experience and they work with all social work regulators across the UK, representing members right from the point of first submission through to the final hearing. Remember, your right to representation is only guaranteed by a trade union and your employer cannot deny entry to a trade union official.

BASW and SWU, stronger together for social work and social justice

BASW CEO Dr Ruth Allen holding a copy of the Austerity Action Group's newly launched Campaign Action Pack at the SWU Conference 2024 in Manchester.

Thank you to BASW CEO Dr Ruth Allen for speaking at our conference. Ruth spoke about how the partnership between BASW and SWU is a fantastic offer to social workers and we work together on joint policy, campaigns, and research especially around working conditions. She emphasised the importance of joining a trade union before any issues arise in order to be fully supported and thanked the hard-working BASW/SWU Advice & Representation team who are the reason many of our members join.

Retired social work tutor Jacqui Moore, who is a member from the Greater Manchester branch of BASW, also shared her social work journey over the past 50 years. She discussed the benefits of being an active member in your professional association and union, and what journeys are possible.  She reflected that good leadership, wide participation, and expertise are the cornerstones of a successful campaign, and on the importance of growing your personal and professional support networks.

SWU Union Contacts

SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher speaking at the SWU Conference 2024. Behind him is the stage backdrop for Banner Theatre's upcoming performance, which includes a guitar and the Palestinian flag.

SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher spoke about becoming a SWU Union Contact which is an integral part of our trade union’s growth. He said:

“It’s about bringing your energy and idealism to create change. When I trained to be a social worker, I was taught about the importance of being an agent of change vs being an agent of the state. Being an agent of change is something I also associate with trade unionism – standing with other people that share similar values, experiences.”

He advised social workers and students to ignore those who say they are being too idealistic and unrealistic, to keep questioning the things that you need to question, to look for information and support of other practitioners to back up what you’re saying, and use the frameworks to demonstrate what’s needed.

SWU members can be leaders in their workplaces and universities as a Union Contact by disseminating information about the union, campaigns that people can join, and affiliates that are offering opportunities. There are always opportunities for every member of SWU to contribute to campaigns and initiatives that are going to benefit people in their workplaces and the communities that we work with.

We concluded the day with a rousing musical performance by the Banner Theatre Group.

The Banner Theatre Group sings the song "Freedom for Palestine" as part of their live performance at the SWU Conference 2024 in Manchester. The stage includes a video playing in the background, banners with political slogans such as "tax the rich" and "coal not dole", union flags, and a Palestinian flag.

Founded in 1974, Banner Theatre creates powerful, innovative, issue-based multimedia theatre productions. This week the General Federation of Trade Unions has announced a partnership with Banner Theatre for their latest project, Battle Lines, which links the historic struggles of the miners’ strike in 1984 to modern conflicts.

Conference attendees were treated to a preview of some of the songs and videos from this exciting project. The songs covered a broad range of subjects including the cost-of-living crisis, freedom for Palestine, the farmers’ protest in India which became the biggest general strike in trade union history, Amazon employees forming a union, and an updated version of “Kill the Bill” protesting the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.

“Hello, we’re Banner Theatre from Birmingham and we’re delighted to be at the SWU Conference for the launch of this Campaign Action Pack. So, thank you SWU for having us – woohoo!”
Available to download now! "Boot Out Austerity Marches on! Battling the Cost-of-Living Crisis: Campaign Action Pack"