Social Workers Union advice to members ahead of TUC Day of Action

The Social Workers Union (SWU) is very concerned at the attacks on social workers’ jobs, pay and conditions of service which are being mounted by the Coalition Government and are often colluded in by their allies in local authorities.

Warm words of concern for the users of our services are too often belied by actions which undermine the ability of social workers to provide the high quality support which our professional values espouse.

The current proposals to require social workers to work longer for pensions, which will in the future be worth less, are unacceptable. SWU are committed to working with all other trade unions to seek improvements.

The TUC Day of Action on November 30 is one important tactic on one important day. SWU is applying to join the TUC and is committed to supporting the activities of fellow trade unionists wherever we can. However, it is important that, as an independent trade union with a membership made up solely of social workers, we make our own decisions about the best contribution that social workers can make.

Social work is a radical profession and social workers and SWU have many opportunities to campaign, particularly alongside the users of services. While we will always reserve the right to withdraw our labour, we must also consider that the impact of social workers going on strike will be felt much more by the powerless and dispossessed people with whom we work than by the powerful who are so often indifferent to their plight.

The SWU Executive accordingly decided, back in September, not to ballot our members for strike action but to recommend that our members support other colleagues where possible and to carry on with social work tasks on 30th November. Colleagues who collect the Council Tax and clean the offices of the powerful can have an impact by withdrawing their labour on 30th November. As social workers we can help to ensure that their actions are not undermined by enemies in the media who might want to report on children going unprotected and vulnerable adults left unsupported.

This Government and its allies in local councils don’t care about the people we serve.

As social workers we are committed to campaigning hard for our rights, but we can’t let other people suffer in the process and we can’t allow our colleagues’ actions to be undermined by sensationalism in the media.

The legal position in these circumstances is clear:
SWU advises you not to take part in the industrial action where SWU has not balloted. You should inform your line manager that:-
• SWU members are not taking industrial action.
• SWU members are available to work normally, but they are not willing to accept arrangements that undermine the industrial action of colleagues (see ‘working normally’, below).

Closure of your work base
If, as a result of industrial action, your place of work is closed, you should notify the management that you are not taking part in the industrial action and that you are available to work normally. You may need to confirm this by arriving at the premises to register your presence unless arrangements are agreed obviating the need for this.

Picket lines
If members of unions conducting the dispute are picketing outside the work premises, the obligation on SWU members to work normally means that you must be prepared to cross the picket line, even though this may lead to some embarrassment or antipathy from colleagues.

In the unlikely event that you are physically prevented from attending work, you should formally notify your employer that this is the case and that you are not taking industrial action.

It is important to state that if as an employee you do not turn up to work, you could potentially be found to be taking part in ‘unofficial’ strike action (since SWU has not balloted) and consequently, if the employer dismissed you, you may lose your right to bring a claim for unfair dismissal under the Trade Union and Industrial Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (‘TULCRA’).

You may, of course, decide as a matter of personal choice not to cross a picket line and so fail to attend work. However, there is a real possibility that the employer will regard this as a breach of contract and withhold your salary for that day.

Working normally
You should work as normally as the circumstances permit but you should not undermine your colleagues’ action.

With this in mind, you should be aware of the provision in employment legislation that all directions of employers are subject to the requirement of reasonableness; if an instruction is clearly unreasonable, it can legitimately be refused. SWU will normally consider it unreasonable for you to be asked:

• to take over the work of colleagues engaged in industrial action, other than in exceptional circumstances (such as genuine emergency)

• to undertake a workload greater than usual or to accept additional responsibilities or duties as a result of colleagues taking industrial action

• to agree to the amalgamation of groups of service users or to the division of one group between others as a result of colleagues taking industrial action.

We reiterate the advice given in our October update:-
1. If either working from home or undertaking off site visits is an option, try to coincide this with the planned industrial action day.

Managers who elect to prevent or try to obstruct you from undertaking your usual duties could be deemed as being unreasonable.

Advice for managers
During a period of industrial action, SWU members of the management team may have responsibility for allocating work to colleagues (for instance, arranging cover for absent colleagues in a situation of ‘no cover’ action). If you are carrying out this task, you should, as far as possible, adhere to established practice and respect the principle above, that staff should not be asked to undermine the industrial action of colleagues who are taking action by calling on them to undertake additional work which would normally be undertaken by striking staff members.

If you elect to prevent or obstruct a member of your staff group from undertaking their duties whether on or off site, this would be regarded by SWU as an unreasonable action.

Health and safety issues
Industrial action is likely to lead to a significant reduction in staffing levels and consequently this may result in health and safety implications for head of departments/directors to consider.

The health and safety of both service users and staff must be paramount at all times when assessing the situation and if it is deemed that the likely number of absent colleagues means your department will not be able to maintain adequate staff to service user ratios then serious consideration should be given to closing for the day.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a legal ‘duty of care’ on the employer, to safeguard the health and safety of all their staff as well as that of the service user.

Risk assessments
To comply with its legal obligations, a risk assessment should be conducted to decide whether to continue to conduct ‘business as usual’ on the day of industrial action. This must take into account staff to service user ratios, children or adults with special needs who may need extra supervision, and the absence of first aiders, fire marshals and specialist other staff.

The purpose is to identify potential hazards, and take steps to eliminate or reduce them. Thus, as well as the obvious physical hazards facing staff and service users, a reduction in staff can also lead to increased workloads, anxiety and worry of having to supervise a large number of service users with limited support, which could ultimately lead to increased stress levels.

If an employer fails to conduct a risk assessment they could be in breach of health and safety laws. The main legal responsibilities lay with employers, not members of staff.

Therefore, if there are serious concerns about the health and safety of staff or service users on the day of the planned industrial action, those concerns should be highlighted to the relevant senior manager as soon as possible.

Need further advice?
Please contact SWU on 0121 622 8413 where the TU official will be available to help with your query, or email us at [email protected]

Please have your membership number to hand when telephoning and include it with any correspondence – this will help us to respond to your query effectively.

Hilton Dawson – General Secretary
Marcia Lawrence-Russell – Assistant General Secretary