On the picket line, photo Roger Thomas
On the picket line, photo Roger Thomas

Dan Smart, branch secretary, South Gloucestershire Unison (personal capacity)

Social workers and occupational therapists (OTs) at South Gloucestershire Council took groundbreaking strike action from 4-6 April. Around 60 Unison members in adult social care walked off the job for three days, taking a stand on pay inequalities.

I was one of the striking staff, as a social worker and union rep. For the vast majority of us, including myself, this is the first time we have ever taken strike action. Despite some initial anxieties, the turnout and enthusiasm on the picket lines has been inspiring.

Children’s social workers were recently given £3,000 yearly retention payments, and £3,000 welcome bonuses, due to the staffing crisis. But workers with adults received nothing. This inequality was the last straw for these workers, who have exactly the same qualifications and also face major staff shortages. 94% voted in favour of striking.

On our first morning of pickets, large numbers turned out, getting stuck in. Members engaged in lively discussions, and at several points cars were queueing back to the nearby roundabout while strikers debated with those staff going in to work.

This momentum continued into the second and third day, with a very well-attended strike rally. I was moved by the growing confidence of staff to speak up about the pressures they face. One of our reps pointed out how people are getting trained-up in the council only to move to agency work afterwards, where they can receive up to three or four times the pay with less stress.

Shockingly, the average length of service for OTs in the council is one year! Resources should urgently be invested in permanent staff, with a focus on long-term retention not short-term sticking plasters.

Over the course of this dispute, Unison’s strength in the department has grown exponentially. We now have four reps, from none two years ago, and have numerous other developing activists. Collective organising and strike action get results.

We are continuing negotiations this week and will fight tooth and nail to get the equality we deserve.

We will take further days of strike action if that is needed. Members have already indicated they would be in support of this, and have been buoyed by the solidarity over the strike week, bringing us all closer together.

This dispute has started to get an echo among social workers and OTs beyond South Gloucestershire, and many will be thinking that they ought to be doing the same thing. It’s about time we got organised, advocating for ourselves and service users amidst cuts, the cost-of-living crisis and pay injustice.