St Mungos Broadway striker writes in the Guardian
On today's Guardian website:
'Why we're striking' – St Mungo's Broadway worker shares motivations
A staff member explains wages aren’t dropping but he’s been on strike this week to protect services at the charity.
“Strikes, strikes, strikes! I don’t know why we bother, Fawlty!” Basil and the Major failed to understand why workers were taking industrial action in the 1970s – unfortunately such misconceptions persist nowadays. When we strike we are not simply demanding more money for ourselves, we are concerned with fighting poverty and inequality, and standing up for the most vulnerable members of society.
Yesterday saw the last day of a week of industrial action by workers at homelessness charity St Mungos Broadway (SMB – the result of a merger between St Mungos and Broadway in April 2014). More than half of employees are members of Unite the Union. Instead of attending our places of work and doing what we normally do – getting people off the streets and keeping them off the streets – we have been at demonstrations and pickets across London and the south.
So we must be either demanding a pay rise, or taking exception to a pay cut, right? Not totally, as pay and terms for current staff are remaining at the current levels, at least for now. Unite members at SMB are taking industrial action on behalf of new members of staff, who, since July, are being paid significantly lower wages and suffering reductions in their terms and conditions. But the bottom line for all of us is the effect that a reduction in staff quality over time will have on our vulnerable clients.
Before the merger, St Mungo’s had refused to join the housing sector’s “race to the bottom” – very low pay for front line workers and excessive executive reward packages. It was known and loved as an organisation that offered recovery to people who’ve experienced homelessness, mental health problems, drug or alcohol dependency, offending behaviours, and histories of complex trauma, to live to their full potential. Slashing the pay offer to new starters in front line roles by as much as 19% will damage our ability to recruit and retain high-quality staff, with outcomes for clients and wider society declining as a result.
The rhetoric from the executive team at SMB suffers from the same narrow perspective as Basil Fawlty and the Major did – striking workers have been accused of irresponsibility and selfishness for withdrawing their labour. For each of us, the process of deciding to leave our clients for seven days was a drawn out and painstaking one. In the end, the path of action was clear: take a short-term hit in terms of client outcomes, not to mention losing out on pay ourselves, in order to continue being a recovery-focused organisation providing better services for our clients and reducing problematic behaviour for the rest of society to deal with. A strike ballot outcome of 95.9% in favour reflected how widespread this reasoning was.
Councillors at Islington, Hackney and Lewisham, the very people who pay for the services we deliver, have come out in support of our protests at their offices, reaffirming the fact that commissioning bodies are aware that paying for quality costs less in the long run. They want to continue to have the option of purchasing better quality services from SMB.
As anyone working with vulnerable people in the UK knows, the government’s austerity programme is flawed, both for its neglect of outcomes that cannot be financially quantified, but also for issues with the purely economic side of things – failing to pay relatively little to support someone now means paying a whole lot more to support them in five years’ time when they have complex needs and reach a crisis point.
If quality workers can no longer be recruited and retained, there is nothing to distinguish the organisation from others in the sector that you have probably never heard of which do not have a reputation for facilitating recovery. SMB will not win tenders as widely as it used to, and the services that assist people away from rough sleeping and damaging lifestyles will erode and collapse. We temporarily left our offices and projects, not as a matter of flippant or selfish choice, but as a matter of necessity for ourselves and our colleagues, our clients, and wider UK society.
Simon Bennett is an assessment and reconnection worker at St Mungo’s Broadway. Heworks on the No Second Night Out project – an assessment and move on centre for new rough sleepers in London.