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Social work and the rise of trade unionism

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, says his organisation is becoming an increasingly powerful voice within the profession

SWU General Secretary, John McGowan

Trade unions have been one of the most effective social movements for the advancement of democracy and social justice in capitalist societies.

Historically, they have been the first means by which workers, who to earn their living have only their labour to sell, struggle to equalise the advantages that the owners of capital assets have in bargaining over wages and their working conditions.

Unions have also continually campaigned, in conjunction with political parties, for the extension of democracy through the advocacy of universal participation in politics, austerity campaigns and challenges to social programmes that do not meet the basic social needs of all. National neoliberal fiscal austerity measures continue to cripple the very people that we as social workers are trying to create positive change for.

Yet overall trade union membership in the UK fell from an historic high point of 13.5 million members in 1979 to 6.2 million members in 2016. The level of overall union members decreased by 275,000 over one year from 2015 (a 4.2 pre cent decrease), the largest annual fall recorded since the Trade Union Membership 2016: Statistical Bulletin series began in 1995.

A number of large individual unions have continued to lose membership over the past decade. I am therefore particularly pleased to say that membership of the Social Workers Union has expanded, and we are getting close to 13,000 members and quoted by the General Federation of Trade Unions as one of the fastest growing unions in Europe.

A real strength is that union members want to be active through our Union Contact scheme and also further opportunities to engage with activism.

Unions have a representative role in the workplace. In addition, a more collaborative approach with the British Association of Social Workers - our professional association - will work best for social workers in the long term.  The ongoing joint SWU and BASW campaign to improve work conditions is one example where over the last 12 months the two organisations have continued to lobby for change.

John McGowan

General Secretary

Social Workers Union