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The Liverpool Social Work Strike

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Liverpool and the National Social Workers Strike.

In 1978/79, 2,600 social workers in 15 Local authorities across the country came out on strike in pursuit of improved salaries and conditions. Liverpool which had a Liberal Council at the time was at the forefront of this strike which lasted for 6 months from Oct 1978 to March 1979.

The social workers who went on strike were members of the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) which went on to form UNISON with NUPE AND COHSE now the largest trade union in the U.K.

Turning point

This dispute was both the turning point for the social workers involved and just as importantly for the trade unions and their members. NALGO with 620k members was the largest but most moderate public sector union in the TUC, which it only joined in the 1960s. It was non party political had its first ever strike in 1970 in Leeds and had never before taken any national coordinated strike action. It did not adopt a shop stewards system until 1976/77. The social workers strike had a massive impact on the organisation and played a role in turning it into the progressive trade union it was to become.

Growth in Social Work

Social workers nationally had last had their pay reviewed in 1968 since that time there had been a raft of welfare legislation passed placing significant extra responsibility upon social workers dealing with the most vulnerable and deprived citizens, culminating in 1970 when the Seabohm report led to the formation of large social services depts across the country. These departments rapidly expanded in the the mid 70s and saw increased recruitment of many young committed workers. In the years that followed pressure grew for a recognition of these increased responsibilities and the challenging nature of the social work role.

Increasing militancy

Alongside the growth in social services depts there was an increasing militancy in the trade union movement in the 1970s, with the miners strikes and disputes relating to anti trade union laws, secondary action also occurred in a number of disputes. The shop stewards movement became increasingly influential at this time challenging national trade unions and seeking local bargaining to improve terms and conditions. The anger amongst social workers first ignited in Newcastle, Southwark and Tower Hamlets where strikes broke out. Although these disputes had different causes with Newcastle pursuing improved unsocial hours payments, and with Southwark and Tower Hamlets increased London weighting. They confirmed the view that social workers were underpaid and undervalued. This anger coalesced around a claim for breaking away from the national social worker pay scales with branches believing they could negotiate better pay deals locally. This also reflected the view that shop stewards movements could be more effective than what were viewed as the very moderate union that was NALGO at the time.

The Dispute in Liverpool.

In Liverpool a regrading claim was prepared listing 39 increases in duties and responsibilities since the last regrading in 1968 and asking for a local grading increase. Then national employers fearful of a rash of local disputes and trade union branches gaining pay increases by leap frogging on the backs of settlements elsewhere strongly resisted any move to local bargaining. In Liverpool the social workers gained a somewhat reluctant agreement of the wider branch to ballot 486 social workers and senior social workers.

Despite a few members making an argument that as professionals social workers should not go on strike as it would harm their clients and the reputation of social workers. The result of the ballot of virtually a 100% return was 87% in favour of all out industrial action.

After one last attempt at local negotiations the strike started in early October with members not expecting they would still be on strike over the winter and not returning until early March 1979.

There had been no experience of organising disputes of this nature in NALGO but quickly 24 hr pickets were placed at all social work offices and main municipal buildings. The pickets continued in some places on a 24hr a day basis in some instances stopping oil deliveries and other key supplies. The strike was virtually 100% there was a requirement for one workplace to be picketed with a mass picket of over 100 people. The strike was very well organised with weekly all member meetings and locally produced information bulletins going to each member.

Following Liverpool who had the largest group of strikers, a number of other local authorities social workers came out on strike over the next few months. A total of over 2600 social workers went on strike including Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Cheshire.

Local Councils refuse to budge

The employers stood firm refusing to budge, attempts were made in Liverpool and elsewhere to spread the action to other parts of their local authorities but without success, in Liverpool several very large mass meetings of the 5800 NALGO branch members were held. Despite support from individuals and small groups from other council departments the wider council memberships would take no action to support the social workers. After some months had passed it became clear that whilst the social workers were strong the impact upon councils was insufficient to bring them back to the negotiating table. It was felt at the time that this was because of the clientele of social workers who were poor and desperate but not influential in the minds of many councils and politicians, nor did the strike have any major financial impact on the councils.

NALGO nationally was also feeling the impact of the strikes as social workers were on full pay and this was draining national funds. Several branches held a number of mass lobbies of the NALGO headquarters to continue the strikes and break away from national conditions. Many hundreds of Liverpool members went by train to London to join these lobbies which were organised by a national delegate body of the 15 strike committees. Perhaps not unreasonably the union nationally commenced negotiation with the employers, not to abolish the national grade but to improve it. The national position was endorsed by a special conference of the local government members when after lengthy debate the striking social workers were unsuccessful in their attempts to continue the fight for the to abolition of the national pay scales.

The Outcome

The outcome of the negotiations in the January and Feb of 1979 was a new national agreement with three bands within it, progression up those bands were based on experience and type of work undertaken. This was accepted by the national trade union although opposed by striking social workers. During February and March, a series of negotiations took place with each of the 15 local authorities on how the national scales would be applied locally. Gradually each branch reached local agreements and then those branches returned to work. Liverpool was one of the last branches to return in early March 1979.

What were the lessons of this dispute in the history of NALGO?

  1. The aim of breaking away from national pay scales was not achieved

  2. There was a realisation that social workers did not have the industrial muscle to force employers to make major concessions.

  3. A number of very vulnerable clients no doubt suffered from the lack of service and support.

There were some significant positive outcomes from this dispute.

  1. Social workers gained a very major pay rise averaging over £1000 per annum which at the time was substantial and would never have been achieved without industrial action.

  2. Within the three bands set out nationally there was an element of local negotiation and over the next few years branches achieved movement up those grades for many of their members who gained even further increases in pay.

  3. Both the Liverpool branch of NALGO and the trade union nationally learnt many lessons from this widespread industrial action.

  4. Many of the activists from the dispute went on to implement changes in Liverpool, the North West and at at national level which helped make NALGO the progressive union it became.

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