It’s usually tough returning home after a holiday – the first day back at work, the British weather, maybe a few bills waiting for us on the doorstep. But when Southampton social worker Debbie Silvester returned from her hols in 2011, the post contained something she could not have expected.
It was a letter from her employer, the then Tory-controlled Southampton City Council, received by every one of her colleagues and giving them a stark choice – sign new contracts on worse pay and conditions, or lose their jobs altogether.
“The letter was waiting for me at home. I had no warning, so it was a bit of a shock,” recalls 35-year-old Debbie. “Between the pay cut and the changes to conditions, like cutting my car allowance, it made quite a difference to my pay every month.
“I did wonder about not signing the new contract,” she adds with a rueful smile, “but in the end I had to do it if I wanted to keep my job. I studied, trained and live in Southampton. And I’m quite loyal. I was left with no choice.”
Changing children’s lives
Debbie has been employed by the council for 14 years, for the past 10 as part of a cross-agency team at the city’s child and adolescent mental health service. She works specifically with 14 to 18-year-olds with mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD, sleep problems and self harm.
The satisfaction of her job, she says passionately, “comes when young people get better, when they start to get more out of their lives, feel happy, are managing differently. Some are not able to leave the house when I first work with them, so when they then go to college it feels very rewarding.”
Two years ago that commitment was suddenly being disrespected, by her employer.
“Obviously it didn’t feel very nice. And at first I felt quite isolated,” she reflects. “But then UNISON arranged a meeting to discuss what we should do about it, what we could do. Everyone was there. And it immediately made me feel less isolated.
“One thing that came across in those meetings is that whatever grade you were, whatever your salary, this was affecting everyone. I do feel that we united around that issue; it brought everyone together. We had the pay dispute in common with people who we did not know otherwise.
An inclusive union
“UNISON is very inclusive. I work in a small team, sometimes it’s just me, but the union makes you feel that you have something in common with everyone who’s there, whatever job they have, whatever age they are. The city council is such a huge employer, and when you see the members gathered in a room you are struck by the diversity.
“I also felt really supported,” she adds. “What really helped was that the branch was able to feed information from the city council to the members, they were a bridge between management and staff. I spoke to people in the union one-on-one, and in a group. They encouraged everyone to ask questions.” Of branch secretary Mike Tucker, who retires in July, she has nothing but praise. “Mike is very quiet, but he’s tenacious, would fight for people. He’s going to be quite a loss to Southampton.”
After those first meetings established the union’s course of industrial action, Debbie became one of hundreds taking part – first in a work to rule, then strikes, lunchtime demonstrations and rallies.
“I’d been a UNISON member since I joined the city council, but I’d just paid my subs, I never went to meetings. The dispute brought out something in me. I got really involved. I thought what the council was doing was so unfair. And UNISON’s encouragement made me more active.”
It was a long, hard-fought battle, which ended with the defeat of the Tory administration in the May 2012 elections – in which the public’s support for the workers was a key factor.
The new Labour council agreed to restore the staff’s wages to their original levels. But the victory – the whole experience – had another consequence for Debbie.
‘The experience made me feel part of something’
“The pay and conditions had been restored, but it was not just about money,” she says. “The experience made me feel part of something. I wanted to become more active in the branch, and also to engage with UNISON work in the region, to get an idea of the bigger picture.
“I sometimes feel that people get involved with UNISON when something is happening that affects them directly. I wanted to carry that on and continue to be active beyond when I needed the union myself. It’s about when other people need it – working conditions, disciplinary procedures, ongoing conditions. So towards the end of the dispute I spoke to a person I know who is a steward, and to Mike Tucker, with the idea of becoming a steward myself.”
She’s now taken a stewards’ course and attended stewards meetings, and is looking forward to undertaking case work. And with the city’s problems continuing – the pay dispute has been followed by a threat to jobs, including the total shutdown of youth services – she has plenty to be dealing with.
“When I look at other stewards there’s a real cross section, with people from lots of different areas of the council. And they all help one another,” she says enthusiastically. She’s also very excited about working with Mike Tucker’s successor as branch secretary, Hayley Garner, another UNISON member who became active during the dispute.
Debbie’s own journey from a UNISON member on the sidelines to one keen to be at the heart of its day-to-day work reflects what the union has come to represent to this level-headed, responsible and determined young woman.
“What UNISON means to me is support. It’s about how supported I felt as an individual during the pay dispute, but also how I felt UNISON supported all employees across the council, facilitating change for everyone who worked for the city, ensuring their pay and conditions, ensuring that they are valued.
“It’s also about feeling included, feeling part of a bigger organisation. The dispute made me aware of how many people are connected to UNISON and what they were able to achieve together. If we do unite we will always have more opportunity to make a difference.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of U magazine