Workers at St Mungo's are beginning strike action after management continues to prioritise cost-efficiency over services or working conditions, reports Mark Evans
Following weeks of fruitless, drawn-out negotiations in which St. Mungo’s Senior management demonstrated an inability to comprehend the meaning of the ballot result in early February, Unite staff representatives have served notice on strike action. These will be taking place for three days, Monday 16 March – Wednesday 18 March, across several services, as well as the organisation’s head office.
The intransigence that has characterised these negotiations on the part of the organisation's hierarchy is emblematic of the absolute disregard for the priorities and concerns of frontline staff that has fuelled this dispute. A final proposal, aimed at averting the strikes, was presented to the senior management facilitated by the independent conciliatory service Acas. These proposals were fair and reflected a compromise, however they were immediately rejected leaving union representatives no choice but to serve notice. Unite are now calling for the CEO to immediately step down after his unwillingness to engage with the proposals that would have seen jobs safeguarded, an end to the long-running dispute, and enabled frontline staff to maintain a high standard of service provision.
There is now a complete breakdown of trust between executive team, and the frontline workers in particular, many of whom are on low pay, and have felt they have been left with no choice other than too withdraw their labour at significant personal cost. To have their collective voice ignored and minimised in the way it has been, with the board undermining and attempting to discredit the union membership, has been the ultimate insult in a series of insults.
Since the last strikes in 2014, which were over an attempt at cutting pay for frontline staff whilst at the same time increasing pay for senior management, the contrast between the ethics of the organisation's leadership and the workers has grown ever more pronounced. This decay was epitomised by the sharing of information with the Home Office which ultimately led to the unlawful deportation of rough sleepers. St. Mungo’s executives were repeatedly warned about this unethical practice by their staff via Unite, however, they denied sharing any data. The leadership team have since been forced to admit they had misled the press, campaigners and rough sleepers about having collaborated with the Home Office, proving themselves to be the absolute antithesis to those working on the ground.
Controversies such as this and the squandering of £42,000 of charity money on a communications company in an attempt to discredit the union have contributed to a general distrust of the motives and decisions being made by the executive team. Within this context, the material issues that have driven this dispute - a harsh disciplinary procedure that has disproportionately affected BAME workers; a punitive sickness policy and attempts to change the junior staffing cap - have left staff concerned for their jobs, their terms and conditions and importantly for the quality of service provision for vulnerable people.
In response to concerns over the scrapping of the junior staffing cap, the executive team have always said that St. Mungo’s pays in the upper quartile of the sector and that it needs to be competitive when bidding for contracts. The commissioners, they say, are favouring cost efficiency to quality of service. This ultimately leads to a race to the bottom and it is society’s most vulnerable that will suffer. Workers across the sector want to see an end to the practice of charities seeking to outbid one another as they seek to grow their organisations at the expense of the quality of services the homeless community are able to access.
St Mungo’s should be taking a lead by standing against, rather than being complicit in the neoliberalisation of the homeless sector and the austerity that sees charities ingratiating themselves towards potential commissioners such as the Home Office. This is the system that has fuelled the current housing crisis and rise in rough sleeping. It is hoped that these strikes will signal the start of a fightback across the housing sector as well as mental health services and substance use services.