In a huge victory for care workers, the largest company providing specialist housing and care for older people in England has agreed to increase wages for care workers they employ to the ‘real living wage’. The legal minimum wage is £8.91 per hour, and many employees of Anchor Hanover were paid this rate, as are a majority of often female and BAME workers in the poverty-paid care sector. The ‘real living wage’ starts at £9.90 an hour, meaning many low-paid workers now get a 10% pay rise of 99p on the hourly rate. The total transfer of wealth to nearly 5000 workers is a whopping £19million. This is the result of a major campaign by the left-led Salford City Unison trade union branch in conjunction with left-Labour Salford City Council. Hugh Caffrey for Socialist Alternative spoke to Steven North, Salford City Unison branch secretary, about this landmark result and the lessons for how this victory can be extended across the social care sector.
Privatised social care is well known for being low-paid and exploitative, and with a low membership for trade unions among the members. How did Salford City Unison organise to meet this challenge at Anchor Hanover?
The techniques we employed first of all was we needed to establish contact with care workers. That was quite difficult to do through the pandemic! Fortunately, we started before the pandemic so we already had contact with most of the employers in Salford, so we worked with our existing contacts to get more care workers involved, and we looked to identify activities that would increase their confidence. So there’s a recognition from us that going into direct confrontation with their employers in the first instance would be difficult for them because its precarious and they would understandably be nervous of the consequences. So we directed activity towards the council, because they were less concerned about the consequences of doing that, and it was a way of demonstrating they had high level support and that in turn increased their confidence to be more active and combative going forwards. We also organised actions where the wider community could show their support for care workers, which again was intended to show how much value was placed on them and that they have real relational power in the community that they can leverage in the workplace.
Can you say more about the organising techniques you used?
The main thread of all our communications with care workers has been their collective strength, we’ve been very clear with people that we weren’t recruiting them to offer a service or solve individual problems, we wanted to demonstrate to them their collective strength and recognise that only through acting collectively were we going to solve the big problems they faced like low pay, insecure employment, etc.
What role did union reps and workers who are active in their workplace play in this?
They spread the message, they encouraged people to see being involved in the union as worthwhile, they also identified colleagues who were seen as natural leaders who if we recruited them would lead to us having the ear of other care workers. That was within the workplace. They also increasingly took the lead in engaging with the city council and in leading our care worker organising cttee. We made clear that they were the union and they were the ones who had control over their own destiny provided they acted collectively.
Many social care workers are female, or BAME, or both. We’ve seen women of colour at the forefront of your union branch’s campaigning work in social care. Worldwide we’re seeing huge movements of women against misogyny and of BAME people against racism. How do you fight oppression in the workplace, and how does that connect with the struggles in wider society?
The first thing is recognising that this does connect with wider struggles in society, so offering an opportunity and encouraging those workers to get involved in Black Lives Matter protests or campaigns in support of refugees and asylum seekers or against misogyny was a way of demonstrating the power that women and Black (Unison uses the word ‘Black’ rather than ‘BAME’) workers have. This is a group of workers who are particularly exploited both because of the role they do and because of their characteristics which you describe, so it’s about allowing them to understand that their place in society doesn’t have to be one where they have no power, but it relies on them organising themselves collectively to liberate themselves both as workers and as Black people or women. One of our care workers’ leaders is now our Black Members representative on Unison’s National Executive Council. So we instilled a belief in them that they had as much right to shape what the union did locally, regionally and nationally, as anyone else.
Following on from that, what can the trade unions organising in social care learn from this example?
That significant gains can be made. While it’s difficult, it’s also worthwhile and necessary, is the first thing. Beyond that, that it’s vital to have workers at the forefront of your organising for their voice to be heard, for their testimonies to be the ones that are heard in public actions and other things. It’s also important to recognise that you have to fight on multiple terrains, you have to organise industrially, you have to act politically, you have to be prepared to engage in direct confrontation with employers. All those things are necessary, you can’t just do one of them. But workers have to be in the lead and you have to be constantly looking for opportunities to allow them to develop and for them to take control of what you’re trying to achieve.
Salford City Council’s Labour leadership has been a major part of this campaign, as you and Mayor Paul Dennett explain in your article in Tribune. What difference did the council playing that role make to what could be achieved?
The starting point has to be how we got to that stage, because while following our successful nurseries campaign we had built a good relationship with the council, we hadn’t to that point had any active support in industrial organising within social care or had the council be willing to challenge these employers. But through the work of our care workers organising committee, the council were increasingly encouraged to take that direction, and to the credit of Paul Dennett and other Salford Labour councillors they were willing to do so and to move beyond the types of passive support that even some of the better left-leaning Labour representatives think is good enough. So you have Lab politicians who are passively supporting the trade unions and you clearly have Lab politicians who are not supporting the trade unions at all. But what we demanded in Salford and what we increasingly got was a Labour council leadership that was prepared to get involved in some quite combative industrial activity and that helped us. It gave the care workers confidence and it also meant that we could trap most providers in a pincer movement where we were operating from below and the council were operating from above but it was clear to employers that we were supporting each other and actively involving each other in both of those strategies and that’s very very powerful.
Obviously, most Labour councils are not doing much, or any, of this. What should they be doing? What should the unions and campaigns be calling upon them to do?
It’s one thing to have an organising model but to win lasting substantial gains you need to change the nature of relations in the workplace. This is why we insisted on Salford council getting involved in industrial organising, to go beyond passive support. That to me is a really important point and part of this, the type of support. The first thing is that Labour has to stand with trade unionists, we can maybe reference the decision by Young Labour to only canvass for Labour candidates who support trade unions in struggle, who refuse to cross picket lines and act in support of unions. That’s significant but what we demand is a little bit more than that, yes we want passive support for the union but we want and expect them to directly involve themselves in our struggle, in the actions we take and the organising that we do. We have got to get rid of this line between the industrial and the political, the industrial has to be political and the political has to be industrial.
That’s something that Salford Labour have increasingly been doing and it’s one of the reasons that this has been so successful.
What should councils be doing differently in terms of policy?
The next thing is that we want councils to actively support efforts to secure collective bargaining in these sorts of sectors. But beyond that we also need to see clear commitments to insourcing of services and in establishing its insourcing commission with direct worker representation on the board (care workers sit on the council’s insourcing commission) Salford council is showing a clear commitment to take social care and other services out of private hands.
A return to the public sector of social care and other privatised services and industries would be a hugely welcome step forward for workers, service-users and the majority of the population in general. But simply returning to the top-down nationalised or council-run models of the past is not the whole answer. How would you like to see social care run?
It’s clear that we do need social care to be publicly delivered and that includes aspects of social care that have never been publicly delivered such as substantial sections of residential care, a lot of that has always been in the private or voluntary sectors. But we also need a strong voice for those who deliver care and those who receive social care and support. If care and support are not co-produced by workers and recipients of social care, we could also see some of the drawbacks of the NHS model which in the past has ignored people’s social needs in favour of a top-down medical model, which is not what people delivering or in receipt of care want, and who need to be built into the structures of governance for democratically-delivered public social care.