Women have been at the frontline of austerity since the 2008 financial crisis. A TUC report showed that cuts in the public sector have meant falling wages, underemployment and casualisation. But care workers in Birmingham, mainly women, have taken on their bosses who have bullied them, tried to impose atrocious working practices, slash their wages and dismantle their service.
This is a dispute that has been “hidden from history”. Yet these women’s struggle over two years in the face of backdoor tricks, threats and underhand tactics from employers has been inspirational. During their protracted dispute these low paid workers overcame isolation in their jobs and a lack of experience of industrial action to overwhelmingly win three ballots, which has translated into 70 days of strike action so far.
Undervaluing women’s work
Women’s work, particularly in the care sector, has been consistently undervalued. It is seen as an extension of what they do in the family — caring for small children, the elderly and those with health needs. Promoting this ideology has been important as cuts in welfare services throw caring back onto the family.
It is important to recognise that the work of carers is complex and involves training. Rated at NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications) 2 and 3 (equivalent to an A-level qualification), it involves a wide variety of tasks, for example administering drugs, checking pressure sores and using rolling techniques and hoists to move people. Carers work with people of all ages discharged from hospital, which might include handling drug detoxification, providing palliative care and dealing with stroke victims. There are also health and safety issues, such as women having to walk in unsafe places in the evening or night, and there are even reports of women being car jacked or robbed while working.
In 2017 there were 460 Home Care Enablement Workers, nearly exclusively women, employed by Birmingham City Council to care for people when they were discharged from hospital. These workers had already had pay cuts of up to £5,500 in 2011 when the then Tory council took away pay for weekend working. The second attack on working conditions and wages was in April 2017 (under a Labour council) when employers tried to introduce split-shift contracts that would have involved working 14 hours a day for eight hours pay.
The home care workers balloted for strike action in November 2017, winning a 54 percent turnout and 99 percent vote to strike, and the council backed down. The employers immediately engaged in a new tactic to wear down the women workers by embarking on a protracted period of interviews for voluntary redundancies — often without union representation. The proposed new shift patterns were used as a way of bullying people out — one worker had night blindness and that was used as an excuse for suggesting that they were not up to the job. The number of workers was reduced by a further 48 percent leaving just 270 staff.
This process meant that a new vote for action was stalled as ballots cannot be conducted when voluntary redundancies are being negotiated. The response of the workers was three two-hour strikes in January, February and March 2018.
This action was called off when the employers appeared to respond positively to the workers’ demand for self-rostering. In a huge feat of organisation the workers cooperated to come up with new rosters that were ready to go. This was no mean feat as it involved give-and-take on the part of the workers to ensure that the needs of their clients were met. However, far from this initiative being taken seriously by management it transpired that this was simply a delaying tactic on their part to string the workers along until after the local elections in May 2018 and to ensure that the ballot for action ran out of time.
The next move of the council in June 2018 was to commission consultants, Newton Europe, at the huge cost of £12 million to review care and elderly services. In the worst kind of scientific management these consultants proposed reducing all contracts to part-time — 14, 21 or 22.75 hours a week. They even dictated how many workers they wanted in each of these categories — 88 people working 22.75 hours, 79 working 21 hours, and so on. As 60 percent of workers were on full-time contracts of 30 hours this represented a slash in wages in a job that was already badly paid. They also wanted to introduce fixed rotas that changed on alternate weeks, meaning that women would be unable to take the second jobs that they needed to make ends meet.
In response the workers re-balloted for an escalation of action, which they won with 73 percent in favour. The proposed action included a series of strikes of up to five days at a time.
Keeping the momentum going
In the face of a war of attrition by management over a long period of time the momentum of the dispute had to be kept going. The full-time union organiser from Unison and other women activists based their approach on the notion that winning disputes means putting workers at the centre and involving them at every stage. A huge amount of work and systematic effort was put into building the strike votes –— initially with telephone calls made to the 460 workers. The Unison organiser kept an accurate and regularly updated spreadsheet of members to record who had been contacted and the responses. Women were invited into the union offices to help them set up email addresses. Regular mass members’ meetings were held to increase participation and everything was voted on. Frequent contact was made through emails to counteract rumours and whispers from management.
Alongside industrial action the union activists organised a range of other initiatives to help keep the momentum going. Film screenings were held, including Made in Dagenham about the strike for equal pay in 1968 by the women sewing machinists in the Ford plant that prompted the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Another film shown was Pride, the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and their twinning with a traditional community in South Wales during the Miners’ Strike of 1984–85.
Unison organised a trip to London to lobby Members of Parliament and visit the headquarters of Unison. Women brought their daughters — many of them had never left Birmingham before. Delegations attended the anti-Trump demonstration that July and the Stand Up to Racism conference in the autumn. In September 2018 the strikers lobbied the Labour Party conference and they led the protests at the Conservative Party conference. The Fire Brigades Union invited the women to their centenary celebration where the theme was how workers had had to fight — not only for pay and conditions but also to defend the services they provide.
The campaign built support in the community by leafletting supermarkets, organising stalls in the city centre and targeting the wards of members of the inner cabinet of Birmingham council who had proposed the cuts.
Living in a different world
Even before the draconian changes to wages and contracts these women bore the brunt of austerity. In 2018 they earned £9.81 an hour (plus a night allowance), but their take home pay in real terms was not even as much as it had been before the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, the situation of each woman is different, but many face real financial hardship. Meeting the most basic needs has meant re-mortgaging their homes, relying on overdrafts and getting into debt. They reported that having to go to the dentist, getting eye glasses mended or buying their growing teenagers new shoes were major expenses that they could not afford.
Contrast this with those working for the consulting company, Newton Europe, which was paid £12 million to make “efficiency cuts”. Their lives could not be more different — average pay for consultants is £47,000 and post-tax profits of the firm were £9.7 million on a turnover of £41 million in 2017. One of their graduate employees described the perks:
“Newton funds weekends for things such as skiing, adventure sports, camping and the Edinburgh Fringe. We get generous expenses so daily restaurant dinners are paid for as well as nice hotels. We have great summer and Christmas parties as well as fortnightly activity evenings, dinners and nights out paid for by the company.” (targetjobs.co.uk/employer-hubs/newton-europe-ltd/inside-buzz-graduates/perks)
As one of the care workers said, “They are living in a different world”. While the daily expenses of consultants are paid for, some care workers were going to supermarkets late at night to get bargains or even using food banks.
These women had no history of or experience in taking strike action. In fact Unison had previously treated them as a special case on the basis of their jobs to exempt them from taking action in previous disputes. However, their 95 percent unionisation was a strong base to build from. This was the legacy of the success of unions winning significant gains in an equal pay dispute in 2008.
Despite the tactics of the council morale was high. One worker said that there was nothing to lose as they knew that workers that had been bullied out of their jobs had not done well — either they were in jobs where the conditions of service or pay were worse or they had not been able to find suitable jobs at all.
Mandy talked about how the dispute was “life changing” and how she had gained in confidence in negotiating with management and supporting other workers. Using social media to get information out quickly to a wide audience was one of the new skills she had learned. From someone who had never spoken in public before she went to addressing meetings and large rallies and conferences all over the country. Mandy talked about the way that the dispute had changed her family, who are now more interested in politics.
Lessons of the dispute
At the time of going to press the outcome of the dispute is not known, but there are important lessons for activists and implications for debates about strikes. Three ballots have resulted in overwhelming votes for action. These votes dispel pessimistic views that votes for action cannot be won in the face of Tory legislation which demands that 50 percent of workers vote in favour. Also the individualistic nature of the carers’ day-to-day work was not a barrier to solidarity between them. These high votes are the result of involving, organising and mobilising members.
The work of women care workers is precarious in the sense that low wages mean that affording the basics of a decent life is a struggle. Pressure on employers from the solidarity of other workers in coordinated industrial action could have won the dispute more quickly. However, support from other workers in terms of invitations to speak at meetings and donations to the strike fund has been crucial in supporting the women materially and raising their morale.
With 70 days of strike action, this is the longest running dispute ever of care workers in the UK. In the face of an arsenal of tactics used by management to defeat them — voluntary redundancy, misinformation and bullying — the persistence of the workers has been extraordinary and inspirational.
Timeline of a dispute
2011: Enhancements for weekend working withdrawn — workers lose £5,500
2015: Employers propose new rotas, back off after ballot in favour of action. 760 workers employed
April 2017: Employers propose split shifts
November 2017: Employers instigate process of voluntary redundancies
January, February, March 2018: Three two-hour strikes each month
April 2018: Action called off as employers agree to self-rostering
June 2018: New proposals emerge from consultants commissioned (at a cost of £12 million) for new contracts: 22.75, 21, 14 hours.
June 2018: Re-ballot for industrial action
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