Demonstration Unite the Union flags on demonstration, December 2012. Photo: Flickr/Carol

Instead of being pressured and punished, staff must be supported and properly resourced

We are all accustomed to the many people who wish to characterise strikes as simply selfish demands for more money, if not because their own class interests are aligned with those of the management, then as a reflection of their dissatisfaction at their own conditions, misdirected as resentment towards workers who are fighting back rather than towards their own management. Yet few groups of workers are found in such a psychological vice as those who dedicate their lives to helping the most vulnerable and deprived in society, such as the staff of St Mungo’s, a charity that supports current and former homeless people, as they go out on strike for three days from the 16th to 18th of March.

This was not an easy decision for many – the last thing those who work with the most least powerful people in our society want is to cause disruption and difficulty for the clients who rely on them, something which management has been sure to weaponise. However after a years’ worth of failed negotiations that have left members’ feeling their concerns have been dismissed, including reports of use of a PR consultancy specialising in crisis management being used to dissuade staff from joining and supporting the union, it is now the senior management’s responsibility to manage and mitigate the impact of the strike which they have left members with little choice to take.

Senior management continue to characterise the decision to strike as ‘disproportionate’, as, they explain, “We are not cutting pay, altering staff terms and conditions nor making enforced redundancies”. This betrays a fundamental failure to understand what is at stake for workers, and their concern not only for themselves, but for the broader issues of eroding standards in the housing and care sectors and for all those who use such services. Workers are aware that the current dispute is not primarily or directly about pay, though of course of all workers should be able to adequately provide for themselves and their families, something that would not have been possible with the proposed extreme pay cuts proposed when Broadway merged with St Mungo’s in 2014, had it not been for the successful industrial action.

This time though, the dispute primarily centres around the ways worker’s rights have been incrementally eroded since the 2014 victory, particularly terms and conditions. Firstly, the breach of the previous agreed junior staffing cap, which will lead to a deskilling of the labour force which members believe will contribute to the ‘race to the bottom’ in standards in the sector. One of the agreements which was negotiated by the Union in 2013, was to limit the number of junior positions, with fewer responsibilities and lesser pay, to a ratio of one per four Project Workers, to ensure the high-quality services St Mungo’s had been known for. Management have since last Spring changed this to just one junior role per two more senior roles and rejected a compromise of three per more junior role. Many members believe that either this will result in a decline in the service staff are able to offer clients, or equally, as many hardworking and conscientious individuals take up these more junior roles, they will become de facto Project workers as clients have needs of them that surpass those in their job descriptions, when they may be the only available staff member, for example in the case of night concierges. Management argue that one of the main reasons for this is to create an access point into the sector, yet the existing role of Project worker has previously been an accessible first role in the sector for people with the right skills and traits from a variety of backgrounds.

Secondly, the draconian ways that sickness and discipline policies are enforced and the culture of scrutiny and fear this creates. There is a culture of staff routinely going above and beyond, working beyond their hours as the services demand, sacrificing family and social life, without which the organisation would soon suffer. Yet many staff feel there is no recognition or gratitude, but rather the heavy handed enforcement of punitive policies leave many staff feeling they must come to work when unwell, and generally feel like naughty school children who must be closely watched lest they give in to their lazy and irresponsible ways. Management argue this is because high staff sickness causes disruption to clients and the services they receive, which it of course does, yet this issue is linked to the first – that of poorly resourced services where staff are cannot look after the physical and mental health. Yet rather addressing these structural issues, management believes it can simply bring staff into line through punitive measures, all whilst compounding the underlying issues that frequently lead to sickness.

The only meaningful way to address these systemic issues in the housing and care sectors, far from instituting a culture of pressure and discipline on staff, is to fully resource and support staff to fulfil their vital roles, and refuse to be complicit in the race to the bottom. This is what St Mungo’s staff are striking for.

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