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Fighting for mental health in Barnet

Branch secretary of Barnet Unison JOHN BURGESS applauds the mental health social workers who today are beginning three weeks of strike action against low pay, unsafe workloads and poor retention

“LESSON ONE, always insist the decision-maker is in the negotiations.” Unison first raised the chronic loss of experienced mental health social workers from front-line mental health social work teams 22 months ago.

Until Unison gave notice that it was about to ballot the members for strike action in July 2023, Barnet Council refused to accept there was a problem.

Suddenly the council said there was an issue with recruitment and retention, except it included 185 staff in the rest of adult social care, not just the 22 for whom we had submitted a claim.

Barnet Council tabled an offer of £1,000 (this offer represented approximately 2.5 per cent) for all 185 staff. Unison consulted our members in the mental health teams, and they overwhelmingly rejected it (as did the wider workforce). Unison’s demand of 20 per cent was based on the current rates paid to family services social workers who receive between 15to 25 per cent on top of their basic salary.

Fast forward nine months and on Monday May 13 2024, Barnet Unison mental health social workers will begin a further three weeks of strike action taking their total to 52 days and making it one of the longest-running social worker disputes in Unison’s 30-year history. The strike is set to continue in mid-June for four weeks taking the total to 72 days.

How did we get here? When the Labour administration took power after 20 years of Tory rule in Barnet, our membership believed they would see change.

In the summer of 2022, RMT led the way with the Enough is Enough campaign and a growing number of unions won ballots for strike action. When interviewed by the media, RMT and other trade unions all commented that the real decision-makers — government ministers — were not in the room. The Labour Party repeatedly stated if they were in power, they’d try to resolve the disputes.

After several negotiation meetings, including with Acas, it is clear to us that the decision-makers are not attending our meetings. We have asked that they attend if they genuinely want to resolve this dispute. As of today, this has not happened.

Disputes with Labour councils are happening elsewhere. I can look across to our neighbouring borough of Haringey and hear feedback from comrades in Unite about their council repairs dispute and how alleged strike-breaking is being used as a tool to undermine them.

We also faced the threat of strike-breaking when senior officers emailed Unison to say they were engaging an agency to cover the strike. This enraged the staff and Unison swiftly dealt with the matter. The contractor withdrew.

Unison, like Unite, is an affiliated trade union and I, along with our representatives and members, expect the Labour Party to work with Unison to bring this matter to a resolution.

Very soon we will be in a general election. The Labour Party needs to understand they cannot take the votes of workers for granted. We have had austerity and austerity on steroids. If new money is not quickly identified and passed on to public services by a Labour government, then there are going to be far more Unison disputes across public services as workers demand better from a Labour government.

In Barnet, we are proudly standing with our strikers. They are an inspiration to others that remind us: if you don’t speak up you have lost — but if you stand up and fight you may win. In our case winning will mean mental health service users will be the winners as they will have a stable mental health team to support them.

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