Socialist Worker

Shelter strike is crucial battle for the voluntary sector

by Esme Choonara
Issue No. 2101

Unite union stewards at the housing charity Shelter were set to meet on Thursday of this week to discuss whether to take further strike action and to plan the next stage of their campaign.

More than 450 Shelter workers have already taken six days of strike action over management plans that include scrapping incremental pay rises, increasing working hours and downgrading posts. The attacks could mean pay cuts of up to £5,700 a year for some workers.

Workers in several offices have now held meetings to vote on whether to continue with strike action. At the London offices, workers voted by two to one for more strikes. This was slightly lower that the last vote, although the vote to continue campaigning was unanimous.

The six days of action have been well supported and workers have been buoyed by solidarity from other groups of workers joining the picket lines or raising support for the dispute.

In London, for example, workers from other housing charities have attended picket lines. Strikers also report that a freelance trainer cancelled a course rather than cross a picket line to deliver it.

Management responded to the strikes by calling a meeting with union reps from around the country – and then telling the reps that there was nothing new on the table. A previous offer had included a one-off cash payment that was rightly described by workers as “an insult” and “a bribe”.

Despite the tough talking, management must be worried. The strikes have already had an impact way beyond the numbers involved – both because of Shelter’s high profile and because of the issues raised.

Most Shelter strikers emphasise that the dispute is about the future of the service. Many workers say that the organisation is losing its campaigning edge or point out that experienced staff are being pushed out of the organisation.

New Labour’s increasing use of voluntary – or “third sector” – organisations to deliver public services means that many such organisations are restructuring to bid for government contracts – often by curtailing campaign work, cutting costs and changing priorities.

Many in the voluntary sector rightly see Shelter as a test case for how far management can get away with such restructuring and at what cost to workers and services.

Other groups of workers should follow the Shelter workers’ lead by challenging similar attacks in their own organisations.

Building wider support for the Shelter workers will be crucial to their ability and confidence to continue their dispute.

Many union branches have already donated money, including the CWU Capital branch which donated £500, and the PCS civil service workers’ union which gave a national donation of £1,000.

Workers at Amnesty International in London invited the strikers to their recent May Day party where they raised £600.

Lina, a Unite steward at Amnesty, said, “The strikers were really moved by the level of support they received. The Unite branch we are part of has given £2,500 to the strike fund and we’ve also had them in to talk at our workplace meeting where we collected another £100.

“The issues at stake in this dispute affect not just the voluntary sector, but also those in local government and health who are seeing services contracted out to the ‘third sector’. These are other groups that could be pulled into supporting Shelter workers.”

Make cheques payable to Shelter Strike Fund and send c/o 48 Swindon Close, Gorton, Manchester.

To invite a speaker to your meeting or to send messages of support, email

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Article information

Tue 13 May 2008, 19:09 BST
Issue No. 2101
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