Banging the drum over pay

This year Glasgow’s homelessness caseworkers decided to go on strike. This is their story

“Most of us are women, and lots of us are single parents, so it was a massive decision to go on strike”. It’s 8 o’clock on a Monday morning in Glasgow and Mary Docherty (pictured above) is banging a drum outside the city council chambers with around 30 of her colleagues.

We’re at a rally of homelessness case workers employed by Glasgow City Council who are in their twelfth week of striking. They’re a small group outside the imposing building their employers occupy in George Square, but they’re making a lot of noise.

The workers assess the housing needs of the city’s most vulnerable, supporting them to access emergency, temporary and permanent accommodation. They are striking because others employed by the council doing similar work are on a higher pay band and receive around £5,000 more than them, and while their jobs have grown their pay has not been reassessed since 2007.

Last resort

Going on strike was the group’s last resort. Lesley McGhee, a single mum with two daughters, said: “We’d gone through the grievance procedure, we’d done everything we could to try and get them to engage with us. We felt we had no other option, but it’s still quite scary sometimes. I don’t think any of us thought we would be out this long.”

Supporting homeless people is a difficult job and the workers feel forgotten and unappreciated.

Frank Martin, a striker who is the only earner in his family, tells me they have to have knowledge of all the factors that lead to homelessness and how to help people deal with them, “whether it’s mental health problems, addiction, benefits issues, you’ve got to work out the different services they need, whether they can maintain their accommodation or they need emergency accommodation, and which services they need to alleviate the problem they have.”

At first their employers claimed the group should not be on the higher pay scale because they don’t manage cases, but the workers have 40 or 50 individuals or families at some stage of the housing process assigned to them at any one time. Frank says they feel like they’re firefighting. “They haven’t reviewed our pay since 2007, but our jobs have grown tenfold since then.”

As the group blows whistles and shouts, a few cars beep their horns in support. They’re hoping for even more support at a rally in a few days’ time, because this is the week of UNISON’s national delegate conference held in Glasgow, and the strikers have invited all members who’ve come to the conference to join them in protesting.

“I really hope other UNISON members join us on Thursday. It might make the council start listening” Mary tells me in between bangs of her drum.

Defending the homeless

Homelessness is a big problem in Glasgow and the workers are all worried the council isn’t taking the problem seriously enough.

Research from the housing charity Shelter shows there were 1,753 households living in temporary accommodation on 31 December 2014, including 1,126 children, compared to 970 households and 387 children in Edinburgh.

One of the strikers, Anna Bryant, said: “There’s definitely a big homeless problem here. Glasgow City Council tried to say that the numbers of homeless people has reduced, but we work with homeless people every day and in our experience it hasn’t.”

And this is a group that knows what they’re talking about. Lots of them have been working with homeless people for 30 or 40 years; the group estimate they have 1,400 years’ experience between them and many have received length of service awards from the council. They have all handed them back in protest at how they’ve been treated.

Photos: Marcus Rose

To make sure their clients know which services to access during the strike the workers have produced leaflets for them, and in return their clients have been supportive of the strike.

Service users have joined them on rallies. Mary tells me about one of her clients who has to wait longer to be re-housed because of the strike, but since she explained why they’re striking he’s been 100% behind them.

The workers are certainly supportive of each other. As they’re based in offices across Glasgow most of them had only communicated via email or phone before this strike, but seeing them together you’d think they were old friends.

They’ve been out together at 8am every weekday morning – even though many have childcare commitments – either picketing outside their own offices or holding rallies outside Glasgow Council Chambers and round the corner, outside the office of the director of social work.

All for one, one for all

The group’s unity may well be its greatest strength, because the offer from their employers several weeks into the strike could have torn them apart.

Council officials agreed to move the workers up to the appropriate grade, but at the cost of a third of the group losing their jobs.

When I ask the group about this the mood changes. They’re all outraged; every one says there’s no way they would agree to some of the group losing their jobs, and they’re all worried about the impact on Glasgow’s homeless.

Angela Harkins told me that the service is understaffed and under-resourced as it is. “To cut the numbers would be absolutely crazy, because they’re upping the workload but reducing the numbers of staff. It’s just not going to be manageable. People won’t get helped as quickly as they should do, they’re not going to get the help they need.”

At 33 Angela is one of the youngest strikers, and as I leave the group to its rallying she looks worried about the future of Glasgow’s homeless services.

The next time I see the homeless caseworkers they’re back in George Square waiting for UNISON members to join their rally. It’s windy and raining and there are more people with them than last time, but not by many. But then we hear the sound of horns and shouts and round the corner stream hundreds of UNISON members.

Branch banners are held high, a man with a megaphone leads chants and traffic is stopped. The square fills up with purple and green and shouts for fair pay.

I see Mary in the crowd, banging her drum again and beaming as she looks round at her fellow UNISON members shouting their support for her and her colleagues.

The workers continued to strike for a total of 17 weeks, until a meeting on 21 July. There, members accepted an offer that secured their key demands – their pay will be matched with other council workers doing similar jobs – with the council agreeing to 68 grade 6 posts.

Branch secretary Brian Smith reported: “The overall outcome of the strike should be celebrated. The 70 strikers conducted themselves magnificently. Well done to the Glasgow homelessness strikers!”