From left: Noel Matthews, Norman Gordon, Mandy Buckley, Caron Eastwood, Elaine Watt, Tina Thomas, Ataui Khandokai. Image: Marcus Rose
“Eighteen months is a long time,” says Norman Gordon. He’s not wrong. Eighteen months of industrial dispute with your employer, involving 82 days of strikes, is a very long time.
And that’s what Norman and 200 of his Birmingham care worker colleagues have just been through, as they fought off attempts by Birmingham City Council to cut their hours and wages.
However, they won their dispute and kept their wages, when the council finally withdrew its plans in May this year.
U magazine caught up with a group of them – Norman, Caron Eastwood, Tina Thomas, Elaine Watt, Noel Matthews, Ataui Khandokai and their colleague and steward Mandy Buckley – this summer, when they travelled to Liverpool to receive well-deserved plaudits at the union’s annual conference.
It all started two years ago, in July 2017, when the council announced plans to save around £2m by slashing the hours of care staff working for its enablement service. As a result, more than 200 low-paid care workers, 96% of them women, stood to lose an average of £4,000 to £6,000 a year – and in some cases, up to £11,000.
Caron gives a personal example of just what that meant. “They wanted to cut our wages in half,” she says. “I was working 30 hours and the new rota would have cut that time to 14 hours. That’s how bad it would have been. That’s how it all started.”
“When you’re not on much money, it’s a lot, you know, to lose,” adds her colleague Tina.
By the end of 2017, the UNISON members were voting for industrial action. In January 2018, they held their first strike.
And while the council may have been digging its heels in, it reckoned without the determination of these UNISON members. They staged 82 days of strikes over the next 18 months, campaigning industrially and politically until the Labour council backed down.
You realise you’re all vulnerable on your own, if you haven’t got anyone to talk to
The care workers are convinced that the confrontation with the council could have been avoided.
“It’s a shame really that it came this far,” says Tina. “I think if the council had come and spoke to us first… who knows what might have happened? We’d probably have come to some agreement. But instead, they wanted to spend – what was it? – £12m on consultants to redesign the company and the rota.”
The group admits that the dispute tested their determination.
“We had tons of low points, didn’t we,” Caron says, turning to her colleagues. “Because we didn’t know what was going to happen.” Tina, Elaine and Norman agree, with Norman adding: “Very low points”.
“It was a worrying time, when you’re being stretched … when you take on that weight,” recalls Elaine, thinking both of the dispute itself and the financial pressures they faced. “You realise you’re all vulnerable on your own, if you haven’t got anyone to talk to.”
But Noel stresses: “We did say, ‘If there’s a problem, ring anybody’. We were there to support one another.”
Adds Tina: “It’s quite a lonely job being a homecarer. You’re on your own.” And with 200 care workers in the enablement team covering their own patches across the city, they didn’t get to meet each other often. But the dispute changed all that.
“Through this, we’ve got to know new people,” Tina says.
“It’s been a nice camaraderie. We’ve made new friends,” adds Caron.
“So it’s had its highs as well as its lows,” concludes Tina.
The homecare workers are amazing and the past two years are one of my proudest moments
As well as the strike days, the care workers arranged campaigning activities together, including coach trips to last year’s Labour conference in Liverpool, to London to make their case to MPs at Parliament, to visit UNISON Centre, and to individual constituency Labour parties and union branches.
The latter would give donations. “The money that we received! They were so generous,” Tina recalls.
“Really, really humbling, that was,” adds Caron.
They made sure that individual councillors did not let the dispute slip by leafleting and door-knocking in various Birmingham wards, including that of council leader Ian Ward.
But what sticks in the minds of the care workers is the support they got from the community, when doing that.
“The people who signed petitions were fantastic,” says Noel.
“We knocked on the doors of people’s houses and they signed the petition and made a donation, willingly,” adds Ataui.
Noel is keen to point out that what really made the connection with the community was the fact that these were workers who actually provided help to people who lived in the area.
“The union gave us brilliant support as well,” says Elaine. Her colleagues single out Mandy and branch secretary Caroline Johnson for being “absolutely amazing”.
Caron recalls the night general secretary Dave Prentis visited them and spoke at a solidarity rally in Birmingham for the care workers and the city’s refuse collectors, who had their own dispute at the same time.
The binmen supported them, and the care workers returned the favour, joining their picket line at five o’clock in the morning.
The solidarity and the care workers’ own steadfastness paid off when the council finally withdrew its plans this spring. But after the experience of the last two years, these UNISON members are taking nothing for granted.
While the threat to their wages has been withdrawn, the enablement service itself is being reviewed by a scrutiny group, and a pilot scheme with the local NHS is introducing a “community team” to “improve outcomes” for people who need support.
“We’ll be ready if anything happens,” pledges Noel. “And we will come out.”
Talking to the group, you can see why senior steward Mandy has nothing but praise.
“The homecare workers are amazing and the past two years are one of my proudest moments.”
Providing a key service
The members work in the council’s enablement team – a dedicated, qualified and experienced group that is “the first port of call when somebody comes out of hospital”.
Patients are first assessed in hospital before being discharged. Then the enablement team takes up the baton.
Initially, the team works with the discharged person for up to six weeks as a care provider, assessing what sort of care package they need in the longer term.
Team members deal with medication, hydration, nutrition and much more. Some clients have a physical disability, some have dementia. In many cases there are multiple and complex issues.