Initially I became a steward because no one else would do it. In the process of the strike I have really become a steward because I want to be one and I believe in the power of unions to protect workers.
Because Christmas was approaching and the workforce in day services is predominately women, it was assumed that we would cave in and go back to work after a week or two. But, as one of the male strikers said, “they didn’t reckon on the strength of a group of women together”. It was that strength that sustained us through the strike.
I have learned so much from the eight weeks we’ve been out together. It turns out that I was more politically aware than I thought, and the strike just brought out the anger and passion that was bubbling away inside.
I used to think that things that didn’t concern me directly should be left alone, but now I realise that cuts are my concern because we’re all part of this society and we’re responsible for one another. Who else is going to look after us?
Wages are being held down while the cost of living is rising. It’s no wonder that people are fighting back. The Prison Officers Association has already broken a no-strike agreement, so it’s obvious that these are not set in stone and can be challenged. Even the police are now talking about renegotiating their no-strike clause.
If you look at a case like Karen Reissmann’s – sacked for speaking out about NHS cuts – her campaign has been so widespread because it has outraged lots of people. They can sack one person, but they can’t sack the whole workforce.
During our strike different people could provide varying levels of commitment, so we took what they could give and worked with that. We didn’t moralise at them but encouraged them to do as much as they felt able.
We also split up some of the tasks and worked with people’s strengths. Some people were good at public speaking; some were good at calling round strikers to get them to meetings. Others had artistic abilities and drew the cartoons on the strike placards – we tried to include everyone and make use of their talents. We did our best to make it everyone’s strike.
I also learned how to build solidarity across other unions. We travelled a lot, addressing union meetings around the country. Some of the donations were just amazing: we got £3,000 from Newham Unison, £3,000 from South Lanarkshire NHS, and one older lady offered to give us her pension money! If anyone had told me ten weeks ago that I would be standing up in front of a room of strangers explaining why they should support our strike, I would have told them they were mad. Yet I learned how to do that because it was important for my members and for the future of the strike.
The support of the carers was also crucial for us. Despite attempts to turn them against the strike, they understood that we were fighting for the future of the whole service and stayed behind us all the way. They had their own weekly meetings in the Unison office, and these were getting bigger every week as more carers came along. They also joined us on the picket lines and at our weekly lobbies of the council.
We were also really heartened when members of the public would bring us tea and coffee on the picket lines and at our lobbies outside the City Chambers in Glasgow. The lobbies were held right in the heart of Glasgow city centre and practically every car or van that went by would beep at us in support. That really cheered up many a cold day.
After what we’ve all been through, staff are now more involved in the union.
What really opened my eyes is the level of connection between everybody in every part of social services. Social work shop stewards voted eight to one to ballot for industrial action in our support, and the bus drivers who deliver our service users to and from the centres are now on an overtime ban as well.
I have more confidence now as a steward, and I also understand how the hierarchy works, and crucially that the most important part of any union is its members.
Gloria Doherty is a Unison steward in a daycare centre in Glasgow.
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