Fighting for fair pay on the Barnet council strikers’ picket line

Adult mental health social workers in Barnet will have completed 27 days of strikes by the end of this week in their battle for a recruitment and retention bonus.

The Unison union members are reballoting to continue their fight against the Labour-led council in north London. They have three demands—a safe service, lower waiting lists and fair pay.

Katie, a rep and newly qualified social worker, told Socialist Worker, “We’ve been offered just 2.6 percent when children’s services get up to 25 percent. That was a slap in the face. Our role is difficult and stressful and there’s been a lot of restructuring in our department.

“As a student, I was really thrown into the deep end. We’ve lost so much experienced staff. It means there’s no one to go to when you have a particularly difficult case, and you take longer to deal with something.”

Katie added, “At points morale has dipped, and our work is there waiting for us. But we’re not backing down—we’re not going away quietly.

“In this job you can feel on your own with individual problems. But being on strike we’ve been able to share our experience and support each other. Since the strike started in September, we feel more like a team, and less alone.”

On the pickets the strikers chant, play music and leaflet other council workers.

Bethan is an assistant enablement officer (AEO) who started working for the council in September and joined the strike in December. The council said AEOs couldn’t join the strike because they’re not social workers, but Bethan refused to cross the picket line.

“I completely agree with the strike. Our wait list is currently 17 months, which is appalling,” Bethan said. “We can only deal with urgent cases. In that waiting time people go into deeper crisis.

“Eventually they just don’t trust our services. We need more staff to be able to handle that demand.” Bethan says the council “isn’t listening or taking it seriously” and has not sat down with the strikers or their Unison union to discuss pay.

“A lot of my colleagues are stressed because of their caseloads. When they come back from annual leave there’s such a high volume of emails, in the hundreds, and it causes real anxiety.”

To win, Bethan says the strikers “need to be consistent on the pickets”. “We also need to get residents’ stories out there,” she said.

“We don’t want to be out here in the cold or away from our clients, but we’ve been pushed to it.

“We’ve had a lot of people supporting us on the picket line who say they understand why we’re striking and people making donations. Everyone deserves support—whether it’s urgent care or not.”

Striker Anita added that there isn’t enough funding for pay, psychiatric wards or residential care. She had to work two jobs to be able to rent a new flat. “The local authority says it has no money. This is a national issue for social services after 13 years of the government ignoring local needs,” she explained.

“It’s £1,000 a month to rent a room. We have a lot of newly qualified social workers whose salary goes almost all on rent. On top of the crisis work we do, we can’t have added stress like this.”

Anite said the strikers are “passionate” about the work they do. “People we work with are suicidal, caught in domestic violence, self-harming and harming others or living in squalor or with safeguarding issues,” she said.

“But once qualified social workers feel the pressure, stress and accountability for their pay, they realise it isn’t worth it. They can go to work for an agency, the NHS or in children’s services for more.

“Those that remain inherit their cases—some of the residents have three or more social workers within months.”

Anita added that it’s not easy being on strike, “but we’re not going away”. “I wouldn’t be out if it wasn’t serious,” she said. “But after 22 years of watching my colleague leave and working in what can be emotionally draining, it’s the right thing to do.”

Jaihanne has worked at the council since July. “As a social worker, I’m not able to practice safely or give clients what they need,” she told Socialist Worker. “There’s so much intervention rather than preventative work. There’s no time to think about how to stop a clients’ situation from escalating further.”

After the reballot, the strikers will look to strike for two weeks, then three or four at a time. “If there’s no response we’ll have to, that’s the only way to get them to listen,” said Jaihanne.

“No one from the council leadership is talking about our strike or visited our picket. They get five figure salaries and it doesn’t filter down.”

“We feel invisible and like the work we do and our clients aren’t even considered,” she added. “Seeing strikes in other sectors like the NHS has inspired us.

The strikers need a big result in their reballot, and to plan their next round of escalated action as soon as possible to make Barnet council listen.

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