On the St Mungo’s picket line at Guildford Street in south London

St Mungo’s homelessness workers’ indefinite strike came to an end on Friday after the Unite union pushed through a deal that falls far short of what strikers were fighting for.  

They should be proud of their fight. Every penny extracted out of bosses is down to the indefinite strike, not union officials’ negotiation skills. The noisy, carnival-like rallies outside donor, trustee and scab agency offices took the dispute onto the streets and outed their rotten bosses.

Strikers voted to accept the deal by 377 to 276 votes on a turnout of 78 percent. But 42 percent voted to reject—and fight to win more.

Unite says strikers won a 10.74 percent increase, or £3,125, with a £700 one-off payment. In reality the strikers have agreed a £1,200 pay offer from St Mungo’s, which is around 4.2 percent for some workers.

On 21 July Unite said, “St Mungo’s increased its pay offer from 2.25 percent to a paltry 3.7 percent. This is despite St Mungo’s having £16 million in cash and substantial reserves. The pay offer was rejected.”

Yet something very close to that “paltry” offer is now supposed to be a great victory.

For 2021-22, St Mungo’s workers received the national joint council (NJC) pay award of £1,925 and a £700 split across two payments from bosses. The NJC is a body of bosses and unions that negotiates pay for local government. The 2023-24 NJC pay offer hasn’t yet been agreed and will be paid in addition to the new £1,200.

Strikers were originally fighting for a 10 percent increase on top of the NJC award.

One striker, Morgan, said the result was “disappointing”. “When we were phone banking against the deal, people sounded tired rather than thinking it was a good deal,” they told Socialist Worker. “We were fighting for 10 percent, but every time bosses included the NJC payment Unite was criticising them saying it wasn’t enough.

“It’s ludicrous that Unite is now painting it as a win, and criminal it’s adding figures together. The fact 276 people rejected shows a lot of people who were actually out wanted to keep going. Large numbers were horrified by the deal.

“We have to be clear that in the last few meetings the tone from Unite officials and some reps has been incredibly negative. They’ve been pushing the idea that we’ve gone as far as we can.

“They’ve offered no leadership or a plan in terms of where next or how to take the dispute forward. That’s been part of the problem—people are tired but they could’ve kept going if there was a strategy.

“The ban of agency workers on 10 August gave us a bit of direction. But there was a keenness to get settled. We also need to be clear that poor offers were institutionalised by our convenor very early on. He told the management team he was happy to take these kinds of offers.”

The convenor argued early in the strike that St Mungo’s didn’t have enough funds, which Unite was slow to debunk. “The convenor showed himself as happy to not just accept but be a salesperson for the bad offers,” Morgan said.

Unite then brought in its “key negotiator” to get a “better” deal. But this also came after Unite tried to convince the strikers to go back into work for three weeks in the lead up to 10 August.  

General secretary Sharon Graham only visited pickets halfway through the dispute, and Unite didn’t make it a national focus for solidarity or fight for an all-London demonstration.

And union leaders undermined the strikers’ participation and democracy. It stopped the strike committees from taking over the running of the dispute, and kept members out of reps’ meetings.

Unite also didn’t stop reps changing their recommendation of the deal from reject to neutral, or stop the convenor and some reps from pushing it. “Repeatedly balloting members isn’t a strategy either, this was our fourth since 4 July, and members didn’t want that,” Morgan said.

“The strategy should’ve been if it’s a poor offer, we won’t bother to entertain it—that didn’t happen for most of the negotiations.”

Morgan added, “The offer is poor but it’s more than what our intransigent CEO wanted to pay—which was nothing. That’s come about after 13 weeks of indefinite strikes being sustained by strikers who were learning on the job how to bring their strike forward.

“Members were key to organising pickets, responding with different rallies and locations. A key section of the dispute set up strike committees and showed themselves to be brilliant fighters.  Members were prepared to go the distance to find creative ways to sustain the strike, and we’re proud of that.”

Morgan said that the key now is to “build on the increased and engaged membership.” “It’s clear that some reps are not up to it, especially those who were going in,” they said. “We need to freshen up the people leading and taking position and continue to build within St Mungo’s and challenge the culture or corporatisation.

“The attacks aren’t going away. We’re not atomised across workplaces anymore. After 13 weeks we’re a stronger and more united workforce at rank and file level. We’re still holding our national demonstration to connect with the broader issues in our sector, and we’ll take confidence in the things that have gone well.”

St Mungo’s strikers’ hard-fought battle was not in vain. They showed the potential workers have to take control of their own strike and find new ways of keeping it going for 13 weeks.

But a warning to all trade unionists has to be that indefinite strikes on their own aren’t enough. It will still take grassroots organisation to stop union officials pushing through compromise and concession.

Join the Workers’ Summit on 23 September to link the fights and stop bad deals. Register at bit.ly/WS230923.  To add your union branch to the supporting organisations, or for a model motion, contact linkthefights@gmail.com 
Join the national march for the homelessness sector, on Saturday 2 September. Assemble near Waterloo, central London, to the Department of Levelling Up

Morgan is a pseudonym 

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