Hitchin: A Victory with a Twist!
Unite members at St Mungo’s Broadway recently won a significant victory which gave two great results – an improvement in pay, terms and conditions for staff at the affected Hitchin project, and upward harmonisation for other staff when the Hitchin project was TUPEd to another provider with inferior conditions.
This branch has long been committed to halting the race to the bottom, but the Hitchin victory is particularly inspiring for driving standards up more widely, and shows what can be achieved when members form a strong, collective united front.
St Mungo’s Broadway (SMB) is a large housing association with around 1,000 staff, the majority of whom are in Unite membership. They have amongst the best terms and conditions within sector, including pay linked to the local government ‘NJC’ scale.
As is common in our sector, there have been increasing attempts by SMB management to undermine agreed terms and conditions, especially in outer-London areas of growth. It was under this expansion that the association recently acquired a new service in Hitchin involving the TUPE transfer-in of staff on inferior terms and conditions compared to the rest of the SMB workforce.
Management decided that they wanted to change the Hitchin night service into 24 hour service but without increasing the budget. Their bright idea involved proposed ‘suitability assessments’ and demotion of Project Workers to de-skilled ‘Support Assistant’ positions. The Hitchin staff were understandably concerned about the implications of these proposals, although not opposed to the idea of a 24 hour service in principle. Their first act was to join Unite which is well organised within SMB.
Negotiations followed between the SMB Unite reps and management and resulted in a satisfactory agreement over changes at the project. This included increasing the Support Assistant salaries and limiting the ratio of Project Workers to Support Assistants, plus agreement that no staff would be demoted. This should have been the end of the story, with both sides getting what they felt was a fair deal. The Hitchin staff – now 100% unionised in Unite – duly prepared to work under the new arrangements. However, as the start date approached, they were suddenly informed that management no longer intended to honour their part of the agreement.
The Battle Begins
The decision of SMB management to renege on the agreed terms for changing working patterns at the project triggered an escalating battle by the project workers at Hitchin, fully backed by Unite members at SMB and the wider branch.
Management refused to budge, and eventually the five Hitchin staff were balloted for strike action. In the end, they took over 19 days of strike action, which was mounted against the backdrop of a Unite media campaign, stalls in the town centre, lobbies of the local authorities which commissioned services from the Hitchin project, appeals to the Labour Party, and a fundraising and awareness-raising campaign through social media. The union also supported members with grievances and legal action over victimisation, use of agency labour, and unlawful deductions from salaries. This helped raise the pressure on SMB and gain widespread support for the plight of Hitchin project workers.
Victory With a Twist!
Eventually, SMB had no choice but to concede defeat in the face of a chorus of criticism and bad press, and the disruption to services caused by the strike. They agreed to all but one of the strikers’ demands. However, in what appears to have been intended as a vindictive act of revenge on the Hitchin workers, SMB gave notice on their running of the project, handing it over to another provider with an outward TUPE transfer of all Hitchin staff. Their attempts failed to have the desired effect however, as the new provider recognised that that a two-tier workforce (with Hitchin staff now on superior terms and conditions compared to existing staff) was undesirable. Instead of trying to bring Hitchin staff down to the level of their own, as far too many providers do, they immediately raised standards for their existing staff – driving a race to the top!
The Hitchin battle involved just five immediately affected staff out of a workforce of almost 1,000, although they were strongly supported by the remaining SMB members and the wider Unite Housing Workers branch. It shows that even with small numbers of members on strike, with a strong campaign and multiple points of pressure, workers can achieve a significant victory against the odds. They can also send a clear message across the sector: when Unite workers make a stand, they will not give up!
Unite St Mungo’s Broadway