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SWU challenges the TUC’s decision to deny membership

Representatives from SWU and BASW comment on the TUC's decision...

The Social Workers Union (SWU) has challenged the Trade Union Congress (TUC) decision to deny SWU's membership application.

SWU General Secretary John McGowan has sent a letter of complaint to TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady after learning of the TUC’s decision.

In the letter, McGowan said: "Our assessment remains that SWU has been declined on the basis of insufficient factual information from industrial interest unions and this is supported by evidence letters written by SWU's Head of Trade Union Advice and Representation Service and a partner at Morrish Solicitors. 

"The allegation of poaching members is alarming as I just need to look at the complaints we regularly receive at SWU about UNISON reps providing false information to Social Workers about SWU."

Responding to SWU's complaint, TUC Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak said: “While I can understand your disappointment that the General Council did not agree the SWU’s request for affiliation, I can only reiterate this decision which was taken in full accordance with our rules. These are, as you would expect, a matter for our affiliates.”

SWU’s application to join the TUC was blocked by the TUC affiliates UNISON, UNITE, and GMB. The reasons cited were:

  • UNISON alleging that SWU is ‘poaching’ members 
  • UNISON, UNITE, and GMB having 'concerns' regarding SWU's independence and working relationship with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW)

SWU categorically rejects 'poaching' allegations

In answer to UNISON’s allegation, the SWU Trade Union Advice and Representation Service has not made any attempts to ‘poach’ members from another trade union.

Indeed, to do so would be unprofessional and anti-trade unionist. Lien Watts, who is the SWU’s Head of Trade Union Advice and Representation Service, responded to this serious and unfounded claim in a letter, saying:

“I was dismayed to hear that it has been alleged by UNISON that we are ‘poaching’ their members and feel I must put something in writing to you in response to these serious allegations that were offered to the TUC.

"I was particularly concerned about this because we have always taken the line that we do not put any other trade unions down in any way; as far as we are concerned, we should all be ‘on the same side’ and as long as social workers recognise the advantage and need to be members of a trade union, then it doesn’t matter which trade union they choose.”

As you may know, UNISON has long held ill will towards SWU which is why we attempted to reach out to UNISON to open a discussion with them before our TUC application. However, UNISON refused to meet with us then and UNISON continues to refuse to even begin a dialogue with us about this serious allegation they have made.

Responding to BASW/SWU claims

John McGowan, General Secretary of SWU, responded to concerns raised by the TUC about the relationship between SWU and BASW.

"If UNISON, UNITE, and GMB are ‘concerned’ about SWU’s independence from - and working relationship with - BASW, then they should have paid more attention to the development of our union over the years. 

"It's true that BASW created SWU in 2011 and I was involved in the process. But in 2016 SWU elected a General Secretary that was independent from BASW - and since then our union rules explicitly specify that 'No member of the Executive Committee may also be a member of the BASW Council and any member of the Executive Committee who becomes a member of the BASW Council shall, on such appointment, automatically cease to be a member of the Executive Committee.'"

In 2018 BASW and SWU signed a formal co-operation agreement, committing our two distinct organisations to drive forward the professional social work agenda and for SWU to provide trade union support to BASW members who sign up to SWU. BASW and SWU re-signed this co-operation agreement in 2021, reaffirming the ongoing commitment of both of our organisations to providing the best for social workers.

In a letter addressing this subject, Morrish Solicitors partner Paul Scholey writes: “Nothing in SWU's rules subordinates SWU to BASW or grants any influence to BASW over SWU's affairs.” He concludes: “Plainly the two organisations collaborate in various ways. But legally SWU retains its independence in the ways set out above.”

What is concerning is that these three larger general unions have decided to prioritise guarding their monopoly within the TUC, over working in solidarity with an upcoming specialist trade union.

SWU’s specialist experience within the community of Social Work would be an asset to the TUC, and TUC membership would give SWU a stronger voice campaigning on issues such as the working conditions of social workers and adequate funding of social work.

Decision to block TUC membership 'undermines trade unionism'

Dr. Ruth Allen, BASW CEO, commented on the decision: "BASW is very sorry to learn that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has not taken the opportunity to include the Social Workers Union (SWU) as an affiliate. 

"SWU provides excellent employment advice and representation for social workers because it is bespoke for the profession and deeply knowledgeable about practice, policy, services and working conditions. "It has so much to offer across the Trade Union movement and the blocking of SWU’s membership of the TUC by large multi-professional unions is a huge loss to trade union collaboration and the opportunity for deepening collective influence.

"I am sure that SWU will continue to grow and be increasingly influential because it is effective in what it does for social workers. It collaborates with many unions through the impressive and creative General Federation of Trades Unions (GFTU). It has extended many offers to collaborate with large multi-professional unions in the TUC who represent social workers too. 

"Unfortunately, these unions have most often rebuffed SWU on unclear grounds - and therefore lost out on joint actions to improve support to social workers.

"The TUC’s rejection of SWU’s application appears to be on the basis of misinformation and protectionism from UNISON, UNITE and GMB and is therefore deeply troubling. 

"All of us committed to effective, modern trade unionism - and the rights of workers in all occupations to have informed support and advocacy - expect honesty, truthfulness and openness from the trade union movement. 

"The leverage of raw and apparently unaccountable power to block social workers having a clear, named presence in the TUC through SWU raises many ethical issues. It undermines trade unionism and the credibility of certain affiliates and the TUC as a whole. 

"We hope the TUC will look at its processes and accountability and ensure, as a minimum, logical and evidenced reasons for its membership decisions."

Carys Phillips, SWU Chair, also commented on the TUC’s decision:

"Post-pandemic, SWU understands that collaboration, solidarity and respect are fundamental to supporting our workforce into the future and makes a clarion call to the Congress of Trade Unions; the TUC to flex and change mid-pandemic to ensure inclusivity where ‘no one (union) gets left behind’ in striving for a better social care future, and not a vehicle for excluding based on the tropes of control we have seen too much of.

"SWU draws together the four countries of the UK and as the Union is 10 years old, it shares this decade with the implementation of Austerity. SWU represents, advocates and campaigns for issues including anti-poverty, anti-austerity, BLM and disability equality.

"The Social Care Workforce has Social Workers embedded within and key conduits to advocating and articulating the Social Policy and legislative impacts that impact the citizens we work with and strive to empower. Social Work is so distinct and specific that the unions I was previously seeking support from were by their own admission ‘out of their depth."