SWU Remains Unique

Welcome to Day 7 of SWU's 10th Anniversary Celebration! Be sure to check back each day between June 12-21 for new videos and blogs that showcase our history and celebrate our future.

This blog has been written by SWU's first elected President David Allan

This is a potted history of the formation of the Social Workers Union and my part in its formation at the outset.

Prior to setting up SWU, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) offered an Advice and Representation Service to its members by way of BASW A&R Officers. However, BASW was a professional association and not a registered trade union. This distinction, although on the surface quite minor, was one of the main reasons that SWU came into being.

The majority of employers recognised BASW as having the right to represent its members in disciplinary matters between the employer and the employee. However, employment law on the matter of representation only allowed for registered Trade Unions, or a colleague to be present.

Some employers, local authorities, picked up on this and started refusing BASW permission to attend disciplinary hearings. This meant that we could not represent all our members equally. This was a situation that could not continue. There were different solutions considered and eventually the idea of setting up our own union was chosen.

It took a great deal of work, endless meetings and determination to make the union happen. Particular mention of Marcia Lawrence – Russell, who was head of A&R at the time, should be made here. She worked tirelessly to bring about the formation of the union. We faced a large amount of opposition from within and without, but in 2011 SWU was registered as a legally recognised trade union and gradually became accepted as the specialist union for social workers, run by social workers.

I occupied a number of different positions within SWU and in 2013 I became the first elected President. This was the first time the title of President was used. My main focus during this time was to try and get SWU recognised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Unfortunately there was opposition from certain other unions that ensured we remained outside of the TUC. However, I was able to negotiate SWU’s membership of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) – an umbrella organisation for other unions not part of the TUC. The assistance and support we received from GFTU was invaluable at that time and remains so to this day.

So, ten years on and SWU is still representing social workers, providing training opportunities and ensuring that the voice of social work is spread to as large an audience as possible. The rapid growth of the UK’s only dedicated union for social workers shows the increasing need for protection in the workplace.

At this time of massive change in the role of local government across the UK, alongside the increasingly stringent demands of the contract requirements for all employers, individual workers can increasingly find themselves at odds with their employer. SWU is unique in that it offers support for individuals and groups of workers who are trying to get the systems and resources to deliver the best possible services to the people who use them. Another large part of the work that SWU did when we started is representing members who were facing challenges with their employer. As the numbers of referrals have risen, so also has the complexity of the individual situations. This impacts on the mental health of social workers and adds to the demands made on the trade union officials as they provide representation for people. 

Social work is a tough job and often involves working within organisational systems that seem to undermine the work with service users, rather than enhance it. Social workers individually cannot change our employment situation on our own. We need to work together for change and take more control of our own profession.

SWU is completely unique within the UK – it is fully staffed on the front line by union officials and its executive body are all qualified social workers. Who understands the pressures of the job better than fellow social workers? SWU staff are able to use their social work skills and knowledge to look at a case and truly see it from a social worker’s perspective. 

I am thankful that I had an opportunity to be involved in founding the union. As a SWU Officer I was involved in many representations of our members and remain completely convinced that the SWU team has and will continue to make a huge difference.