Last week, Anchor Hanover—England’s largest provider of specialist residential and elderly care—announced a £19 million package to uplift its lowest paid care workers to the Real Living Wage of £9.90 an hour.
This will mean a pay increase for 70 carers in Salford, and 4,888 carers nationally—around 50 percent of Anchor’s workforce—in a sector where industrial organising has traditionally faced huge challenges.
This was following a campaign from Salford Unison and Salford City Council, who are pioneering a strategy of joint campaigning to increase workers’ rights, bargaining power, and union recognition across the city.
Deep organising within social care is notoriously difficult. Over a third of this largely female, disproportionately BAME workforce are on zero-hours contracts. In the case of homecare workers, this rises to one in two. Precarity of employment is used ruthlessly by private sector care providers to suppress collective organisation among workers, and continually drive down pay and standards.
Much of the casualisation and precarity in the sector has been caused by privatisation, breeding an environment of fear among workers facing hostile employment practices and expectations to work well beyond paid hours—often in physically unsafe conditions.
The context of privatisation has been real-terms budgetary pressures year on year, particularly since the link between funding and need in social care was scuppered by the Tory torpedoing of Gordon Brown’s proposed Inheritance Tax in the 2010 General Election.
Ever since, the Conservatives have promised regularly to provide a solution to the funding crisis in social care—but have still provided no clarity on what the offer is to be.
Achieving a victory of this scale in the private care sector is a huge victory for workers—and we believe provides a template for a new wave of industrial organising fit for the twenty-first century.
A Long Road
Historically, both Salford Unison and the council have made concerted attempts to tackle low pay in the care sector, but have failed to deliver serious results at scale for staff. A union presence among carers has been thin on the ground, for reasons illustrated above.
On the side of the council, numerous initiatives beginning under the previous Mayoralty of Ian Stewart sought to tackle low pay in the sector, establishing Salford’s Employment Standards Charter and establishing the council as the first accredited Living Wage council in Greater Manchester. But outside of directly employed staff, the impact for employees across the private sector (by far the largest number of care workers in the city) remained small.
But joint work began in earnest following the Fight for the Five campaign to save local authority nursery provision in the city, where the union and the council lobbied government together against changes to the grant regime designed to passport more public funds into the private sector.
Fighting for the Five
Following changes to the Early Years Grant funding formula under Theresa May, five local authority-owned nurseries (each rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted) found themselves at risk of closure, as the council faced a £5 million budget shortfall.
Following a fiery public consultation, in which Unison mobilised hundreds of distraught parents and staff, the council fought to save the nurseries alongside the union in a long-running campaign to find more money for local authority-run nursery provision. Although the campaign failed to secure government funding, the council eventually decided to absorb the £5 million loss, and the nurseries were saved.
It was a significant victory for local residents and the union—and a deep show of empathy from the council and its leading Labour group for the impact of the cuts they had had to preside over since the Coalition government came to power. And from the campaign came a longstanding legacy of trust and partnership between the council and Salford Unison, which ultimately enabled the campaign for carers’ pay to succeed.
Since then, Unison representatives have been brought closer and closer into the decision-making processes of the council, ensuring that the voice and experience of workers are at the forefront of policymaking and budget-setting. Unison representatives now sit on numerous important working groups, contributing to the council’s budget-setting process, sitting on the council’s commission which looks to bring services in-house, and on the Covid-19 steering group, which rolled out the council’s response to the pandemic.
This work has seen real results—even prior to the recent campaign for care workers’ pay. Working with Salford mayoral team members, Unison representatives helped to bring forward Salford’s announcement of pay increases for directly employed care staff in last year’s budget, and both organisations have been working in tandem with one another on how to crack the ongoing issue of private care providers providing chronically poor pay and conditions in the city.
The Salford Offer
At the beginning of the lockdown, when Unison representatives brought it to the council’s attention that care staff required to be off sick, shield, or care for affected loved ones due to coronavirus were going unpaid or limited to statutory sick pay, the ‘Salford Offer’ was born. The initial premise behind the offer was to ensure that no Salford carer would be financially penalised for absence from work due to Covid-19—a situation incredibly unfair to carers who bravely worked through the early stages of transmission of an as-yet-unknown disease, but also one that would put care recipients at risk, as cash-strapped carers were discouraged from reporting symptoms for fear of destitution.
The council negotiated a pay package for carers through its Integrated Commissioning Organisation (ICO), the joint-commissioning vehicle it shares with local health bodies and the NHS, and the payments were rolled out across the sector. But it was clear that the Salford Offer only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of deeper issues care workers were facing. Evolving throughout the pandemic, the Salford Offer was re-launched last year as an offer to pay to uplift rates of pay for carers in the city to ensure that all carers were being offered at least £9.25 an hour—if not the Real Living Wage of £9.90.
However, to the surprise of both the council and Unison, most care providers in Salford did not wish to take up the offer of free cash to increase pay for their carers, or to safeguard their incomes whilst they shielded during lockdown. Citing operational concerns—particularly a reluctance to introduce variable rates of pay for staff working within Salford’s borders and outside of it (potentially creating a two-tier pay structure for poorly paid workers elsewhere) —take-up of the offer was nowhere near what was originally anticipated. Others reacted with apparent hostility to the idea that the council could engage them over workforce concerns.
Demanding the Offer
It was clear that a more affirmative line needed to be taken. The mayoral team began briefing and lobbying care organisations across Salford, putting pressure on them to sign up to the offer. At the same time, Unison began spreading the message of what was going on amongst staff, applying pressure from within each care provider.
The offer shattered a lot of illusions many staff had previously about their employers. Prior to the Offer, a huge block against union activity was the belief that care providers simply did not have enough money to provide decent conditions for workers. However, discovering that the council was offering to uplift their pay and protect their incomes—and that their own companies were rejecting that offer—was a watershed realisation. A series of Unison-organised rallies grew bigger and bigger—and the union grew stronger and stronger.
As time wore on, the council began compiling a list of all care organisations in the city who refused to take up the offer, which is now published on a council website. One by one, they began to accept the terms. At the point when Anchor made their recent announcement, all but two (including Anchor themselves) had accepted the offer. Anchor’s £19 million announcement makes this local victory a significant national one—with huge implications for industrial organising in the future.
Building Full Pressure
The care system is a classic example of a sector in which precariously employed workers have historically found it impossible to organise and win. But the story of the Salford Offer campaign shows how the weight of elected Labour authorities working alongside trade unions can turn the tide for even the most marginalised, insecurely employed staff.
Local authorities are community institutions. They offer huge sources of funding for services like care, and can carry huge weight and legitimacy in negotiating minimum employment standards among commissioned services and extended supply chains. Combined with Unison’s on-the-ground intelligence and their abilities to recruit and mobilise, the council and the union operated in a pincer movement. Tactics of direct lobbying, worker delegations, open letters, and ambitious public pledges on pay have been used in the process of building pressure on employers in the interests of their workers.
Labour councillors and representatives proactively involving themselves in community and union campaigning has been game-changing for Salford’s carers, forming part of a circle in which staff are buoyed by the knowledge that their cause has institutional support.
The Salford Offer is far from the end of our ambitions. These successes have hugely emboldened Salford City Unison’s already energetic care worker-led organising committee, who are looking outwards to win the Real Living Wage for all care organisation employees across the city. Other equally significant battles are being won around pay transparency, holiday pay, staff control over rotas, and proper sleep-in pay.
Unison’s members are also engaging fully in the work of the council’s insourcing commission; the Salford Offer has illuminated the democratic deficiency behind privatised care organisations—and increasingly, staff see in-house provision as the only guarantee of decent terms and conditions, pay, and commitment to provision.
It’s a battle that’s far from over. But if such victories can be achieved for workers in our care sector, they can be achieved anywhere in the furthest reaches of Britain’s increasingly precarious service economy.