Could unions save the social work profession?

In my previous post I asked what the social work profession might look like if achieving social change was a key priority of the profession. While the response was positive I’ve had several people ask me about how it is that social workers could be a force for social justice given the substantial barriers which the profession faces. This is a considerable question and one which I don’t think enough attention has been devoted to. My understanding is that most social work literature which talks about social change is either utopian, completely neglecting the practicalities of social work practice, or proposes methods of practices which at their heart are still focused at the micro level.Carey and Foster (2011) describe the disconnect between theory and practice and say that those propose radical forms of social work have been “competing with one another to claim that just about every cause or social problem could be confronted, or even overcome, by the humble social worker on the front line.” (p. 581). In a similar vein Marston and McDonald (2012) describe how social workers are often described as if they have superhuman abilities to confront those in power.

Clearly what is needed is not further writing which places a burden on social workers but ideas and strategies which the can begin employing. One of the practical solutions which I have seen in social work is the use of unions by social workers. In this post I’m going to expand on this idea, drawing on some of my own experiences.

In my mid-teens I became involved in political activism, initially attending protests related Genetic Engineering and the Iraq War. Through these protests I met likeminded young people and we went on to form a youth anti-capitalist group called Radical Youth. This was a group, run by teenagers, which engaged in protests, led campaigns, lobbied politicians and spoke to the media. While staunchly run by young people we were fortunate that Unite Union offered some support, letting us use their meeting  rooms, and offering cost-price printing. Over time many members of Radical Youth volunteered for Unite, and helped them with their ‘supersize my pay’ campaign.

The ‘supersize my pay’ campaign was a bold attempt to unionise the fast food sector; with the aim of winning substantially better pay and working conditions. This presented a monumental task; most unions thought fast food workers were almost impossible to organise due to the makeup of the workforce. Undeterred Unite set about organising a young, unstable and poorly paid workforce. The campaign was run on a shoestring budget, with passionate volunteers playing an important role in recruiting members, and organising protests. Despite concerted attempts to prevent unionisation Unite was successful in building up a base of members across the fast food sector.

The campaign itself was an amazing experience to be involved in. Workers on Karagahape Road led the world’s first Starbucks strike and dozens of wildcat actions followed. Eventually employers came to the table and Unite made some significant wins. Unite has continued to build on these wins for example they recently led the campaign to get rid of zero hour contracts.

I look back on this as one of the most impressive campaigns I have ever been involved in. Here was a group of low-skilled workers and volunteers taking on the largest companies in the world – successfully! The campaign was also linked to broader political goals such as an end to youth rates and the introduction of a substantially higher minimum wage.

So how does all this relate to social work? Well if fast food workers can organise and win considerable victories then I believe that as social workers we should aspire to do the same. Following in the footsteps of the ‘supersize my pay’ campaign I believe that social workers could deliberately set out to use the union to transform the working conditions of social workers. I think that we could set visionary goals and deliberately build the political power necessary to achieve them. Unions (such as the PSA) could be a powerful voice speaking out on the impacts of underfunding on the vulnerable.

I think social work is actually in quite a strong position here. While as individual social workers we may be aware of the impacts of systemic failure it is rare that this knowledge makes it into mainstream consciousness. By simply telling the truth about what it is social workers are experiencing, and the impacts on those we work with, I think we could put serious pressure on the current government.

Unions also provide a range of benefits which I think the profession is in need of. Crucially unions transcend the isolation experienced by many social workers who have political aspirations. They provide a great opportunity to organise collectively and there are often opportunities to learn the skills required to engage in effective campaign work.

I am aware of, and excited by, the current work which is being done by the PSA and have watched with great interest the development of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN). Were I not already over-committed with my current activism this is where I would be devoting a significant amount of energy. I do think though that there is a lot of room for development when it comes to unions and social work. For example my anecdotal experience has been that many social work students don’t have a particularly strong interest in unions. My experience has also been that oftentimes social workers don’t fully appreciate the importance of unions. I also feel as if the profession has effectively accepted the poor position that we are in.

The need for industrial organising is seen in the high caseload, high stress levels of stress and burnout which plague the profession internationally. These working conditions and the low levels of pay within the profession indicate that like those fast food workers a decade ago we need an aggressive and visionary push within the sector.

My personal experience has shown me that change is oftentimes far more achievable than most realise. I’ve consistently seen how small groups of volunteers can change public opinions and hold politicians to account. In the social work profession we have thousands of skilled practitioners, all of whom have an understanding of how to use systems and who share a commitment to social justice. I think that this presents a more powerful force for social change than we can imagine.

If you are interested in learning more about the ‘supersize my pay’ campaign this article provides a critical overview.


Carey, M., & Foster, V. (2011). Introducing ‘deviant’ social work: Contextualising the limits of radical social work whilst understanding (fragmented) resistance within the social work labour process. British Journal of Social Work, 41(3), 576-593. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcq148

Marston, G., & McDonald, C. (2012). Getting beyond “heroic agency” in conceptualising social workers as policy actors in the twenty-first century. The British Journal of Social Work., 42(6), 1022-1038.

 Image credit | John Darroch

4 replies on “Could unions save the social work profession?”

Interesting thoughts John.

Thinking of our National SW Association, I do think that it could benefit from developing more formal links and alignment with the PSA, as our largest union for Social Work practitioners. The values of each easily align.

I could also see our National Association develop (and voice) clearer statements and more intentional positions about issues that affect practice, policy, and people. This might involve our national association re-positioning itself to that of ‘advocate’ and ‘informer’. This is inline with associations generally, who exist for both the profession and the practitioners.

I look at our UK counterparts and BASW, who appear to have positioned themselves as both advocate and informer. By being intentional about this re-positioning it would be expected that tension between associations and the government of the day would occur. I see this as a good thing, as it will inform us that we have been successful in our re-positioning as both advocates and informers.

I think the challenges of our current climate, are actually possibilities for further change within the SW profession and our practices.

Nga mihi
Jimi McKay

Thank you for giving voice to this important topic John.

I agree with Jimi that ANZASW would benefit from developing a stronger voice and taking a stance on the important social issues impacting the people of Aotearoa. That would involve us all as individual members being willing to work collectively to influence those who hold power in our communities. We cannot wait for someone else to do this but must be willing to take action ourselves. I am encouraged by John’s suggestion that if we will work together then change is more achievable than we might think.

Partnerships with Unions such as PSA would no doubt prove very helpful in this endeavor. We need to make the most of the skills, expertise and public profile that are already available within Unions. Hopefully we can avoid the pride of thinking we have all the expertise and answers. Surely, it is this kind of partnership approach that should be the hallmark of social work action.

I look forward to seeing where this discussion might take us. Hopefully, groups of social workers up and down the country will begin to come together to challenge local issues and act as a catalyst for significant national change over time.

I MUST give you a BIG THANKYOU! especially “I’ve consistently seen how small groups of volunteers can change public opinions and hold politicians to account. ” Social workers are on the front line of the battle for social justice, and as such John, you recognize that you intersect the connection between social justice and administration of social policy. I find it frustrating that too often people are very reluctant to examine and talk about the association between battles the ordinary person faces and how their communities are complicit in the social and political manipulation of social policies. They only want to hear about “positive” narratives even in the face of outright oppression, especially when it affects their own back yard. When faced with information that points this out many refuse to acknowledge it and willingly retreat into the “party line” of labeling the victims with names which condemn them without fear of being contradicted… This is alive and well in New Zealand and world wide.
As an aside you would possibly be able to appreciate what this writer is saying as a positive call for action-and not dismiss the concepts as “fearmongering” so I’m passing this link on to you as an example of the sort of information I am referring to – Chrs!

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