Care Workers in Barnet, north London, are determined to win. They strongly rejected a desperate last minute offer from bosses to end the dispute last week.
Your Choice Barnet (YCB) bosses thought they could avert a planned strike with an offer. But workers voted with their feet and struck for three days from Wednesday of last week.Pressure is building on bosses since a scathing Care Quality Commission (CQC) report rated standards “inadequate” at the Tory-run council’s care firm.
“Last year management said there was a £400,000 shortfall so they were going to cut our wages by 9.5 percent,” said Unison union rep Keith.
“But last week they announced YCB made £100,000 profit in the past year. So they tried to offer £40,000 to share between us to get us to stop the strike. We said no.”
Striker Rose said, “They think they can come and offer us £250 and we’ll shut up—I don’t think so.”
Some managers seem to be taking it personally. After workers snubbed the offer bosses changed the lock on the gate to the grounds of the biggest day centre and took strikers’ chairs for the picket line inside.
YCB bosses have also reduced the amount on offer to £30,000 according to Keith. He said, “It’s like they see us as naughty children not eating our dinner.”
What bosses don’t understand is that it’s not just about money. Workers want to ensure the adults with disabilities they care for are properly looked after.
But changes to the service since Barnet Council outsourced the workers are making things worse.
The use of agency workers and the extra workload it can mean is a big issue for YCB workers. This failure to maintain a stable permanent core staff creates problems.
Leo explained, “As well as the people I care for I have to watch over the agency staff because they can’t administer medicines or be left on their own. And each time there’s someone new they have to be inducted.
“I can’t give 100 percent to my job because of all these extra responsibilities. That puts more stress on me. And with the pay cut I’m forced to work an extra day a week to pay my bills—it’s unsustainable.”
Rose told Socialist Worker, “They are just bringing people in on less money to do the same job.”
The workers’ anger extends beyond what the local Tories are doing.
Carl said, “They are telling us we are all in it together but we are not. Look at these rich people hiding their money in the tax havens while people are using food banks.
“This is a struggle for everyone. We are prepared to carry on fighting and keep up the pressure. And we’ll strike again if we have to.”
Some workers’ names have been changed.
Staff cuts of 30 percent hurt the continuity of care
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) report is a damning indictment of Tory outsourcing in Barnet.
And it vindicates the arguments workers made before their service was farmed out in 2012.
Warnings from Barnet Unison at the time and since have largely been ignored as Tory councillors steamed ahead with their plans to outsource supported living services.
A restructure in 2013 and cuts to pay on shift allowances saw staffing levels cut by 30 percent. An increased use of agency workers has impacted on the continuity of care provided.
YCB has refused to release figures on the use of agency workers. Striker Keith said that in the past two weeks half of the staff at his workplace were agency workers.
“Some are regularly used but many are not,” he said.
It means inexperienced workers are being used for a service in which they don’t fully understand what is required to provide the quality of care needed.
Keith explained, “Experienced staff can understand the needs of someone with profound learning disabilities just by noticing single eye gestures but they are being lost to the service.
“They are being replaced by poorly trained, ill-equipped workers.”
The CQC criticised YCB because too many staff “did not have the skills or understanding to care for people who had different needs effectively”.
It said safety was “compromised in a number of areas” ranging from medical records not updated to people at risk of food poisoning from incorrectly stored or out of date food. It also raised concerns about “low numbers of staff”.
The council’s adults and safeguarding committee last month questioned a YCB manager on the CQC’s repeated criticisms of staff training.
In reply, the manager claimed workers receive regular training. Strikers were furious. “I’ve been here six years but since we became YCB I’ve had no training,” said Rose.
Let’s bring it back in-house
The neoliberal laboratory of Barnet council is failing. There is now a growing body of evidence to back the argument to bring services back in-house.
But the stakes are high and the flagship Tory council will only be defeated with a sustained and determined struggle. More strikes will be needed.
And solidarity will be crucial to help the YCB workers win.
The nightmare of outsourcing has pushed Barnet Unison to ballot all remaining council workers after the Tories voted through another raft of mass outsourcing.
The Tories’ Barnet experiment is being copied across Britain. Each savage cut to local public spending forces councils to look for ways to raise money. And the privateers wait with open arms as more services are outsourced to “make savings”.
It must be resisted before local government as we know it has disappeared altogether.