Sisters in the struggle: Unions and social work

By Amy Ross (Trade Union Organiser, PSA)

Tuesday’s post by John Darroch explored unionisation as a critical component of social workers being able to realise social change in a practical sense. As a union organiser, social worker and the convenor of the Social Worker Action Network (SWAN) within the Public Service Association (PSA) union this presents a useful opportunity to explore this idea further as well as to elaborate on what the PSA is doing with social workers across Aotearoa.

Social work is about striving for social justice. Both on a macro and micro level justice is interwoven into the fabric of the profession (Myer, 1981).  Despite a multitude of fiscal, managerial and political challenges to this principle, social work’s roots still cling onto this principle. Indeed, O’Brien (2009) states:

Without explicit attention to social justice, social work becomes something else. It is not social work in either a historical or contemporary sense. Moreover without that attention, it would fail to meet both its international definition and its ethical requirements. (p. 78).

Naturally though, it is more difficult to work for justice in practice than it is in theory. My personal experience as a practicing social worker was one in which I saw two key reactions to the struggles of realising social justice.  One was that it was perceived as the naïve, idealistic approach of a newly graduated social worker which would ‘wear off’ as I – and others like me – realised the ‘reality’ of working life. The other was that there was an expectation that we would simply get on and ‘make stuff happen’ against often overwhelming odds, whether that be caseloads, contractual or funding restrictions, organisational expectations and/or isolation.

For those social workers committed to achieving social justice through their work, both these responses can cause significant hurt and damage. I watched many fellow social workers become disillusioned and frustrated with the profession and leave; others burn themselves out while still others gave up and began to become more complicit with unjust systems. This effect has also been well documented internationally (Van-Heugten, 2009).

The growth of the Social Workers Action Network (SWAN) within the Public Service Association (PSA) union however is the beginning of combating this in a very real, very tangible way.  The PSA represents over 4000 social workers and bringing these members together within one union has been critical in both reigniting the sense of a core social work identity and also in terms of having a loud enough voice to be heard and make real substantial change. SWAN is quite simply a place to unify, inspire and advocate for social workers and the issues that matter to us. The union – with its core principles of collectively, and solidarity – provides a natural space for social workers to work for social justice without having to be alone, separated by geographical or ‘area of practice’ boundaries. SWAN ultimately aims to make our capacity to make change and influence the profession limited only by the boundaries of our own imagination and desire to step up and be involved.

Like many community action groups, SWAN advocates for social change on myriad levels, from a position of collective strength and unity.  However, distinct from a community action group, the unique strength of SWAN is that we can also advocate for social workers within the workplace.

The PSA, with the help of SWAN, ensures that social workers who challenge unjust policies, unsustainable workloads or reactive and ineffective practice within their own organisations have support and advocacy. By using the ability of a union to build relationships and have a presence in workplaces the PSA can ensure social workers can hold the line in terms of their fundamental commitments to social justice and ethical practice, even when it means challenging their own organisation. By having conversations regularly with employers we are already working to change employers’ perception of what it is to employ a social worker and how valuable our ethical base can be.

Another key function of SWAN is to unify social workers from all areas to advocate for our profession, as we define it.  To make social work something that we all feel proud of. For despite social workers working across all sectors, and in many different practice fields we are a unique and distinct profession or ‘craft’. We weave together the threads of many disciplines into a unique set of skills and analysis not found in any other profession (Bisman, 2004; Dominelli & McLeod, 1989; Payne, 1999).

I am sure that some social workers reading this will be doubtful about that statement.  This is possibly a reflection of the fact that we have struggled historically with the identity of social work, at times allowing it to be shaped, co-opted and directed by unjust government policies and attitudes of the time (Haynes & White, 1999; Lundy, 2004). I have often heard social workers say they are ashamed to be a social worker and don’t even want to use the term.

My reaction to this is similar to my reaction when people say that they no longer identify as feminist as it has been ‘corrupted’. Nobody redefines and undermines the values, concepts and principles that are important to me. We need to reclaim and redefine those terms and fight for a profession which can make ground-breaking change in people’s lives.  If we do not define these ourselves and the values and ethics we are informed by we will allow social work to be corrupted and swept away by predominantly neoliberal regimes (Ross, 2014).

To promote our professional identity SWAN has tapped into and modernised some of the historically valuable concepts of an ‘occupational guild’ which (amongst many other things) provided the capacity to protect, celebrate and nurture a skill set or craft. (De Moor Tine, Lucassesn Jan, Luiten van Zanden Jan 2008). Our network creates a space, through education, actions and gatherings where we as social workers can come together and reignite our love and passion for the profession many of us were drawn to in the first place – where we are agents of social change not agents of the state and its latest whim (Harlow, 2004; Ross, 2011).

While workplace representation and advocacy and the rebuilding of a strong and powerful identity for social work are crucial our goals don’t stop there.  We have a right and a responsibility to stand up and speak out on issues that affect us, our families, communities, our country and our planet.  SWAN members are active participants in campaigns across the PSA, including health underfunding, equal pay, the housing crisis, climate change and of course the CYF reforms (to name only a few).

SWAN provides a safe platform for social workers to be activists, both alongside other groups of workers and as a distinct occupational group.  Social workers are empowered to contribute their knowledge and experiences from their working life into campaigns for change and to help develop and propose alternative solutions

Over this year SWAN will be building, growing and taking on more projects and actions shaped by our members.  So now is your chance: if you have felt despairing or powerless about the state of the world, disillusioned about social work, or you are keen to connect with social workers from all over Aotearoa then get involved in SWAN! We can and are making change and using our voices. Quite simply we are Stronger Together.

For more information contact or phone 0508367772 and ask for Amy.


Bisman, C. (2004). Social work values: The moral core of the profession. British Journal of Social Work, 34, 109-123.

De Moor Tine, Lucassesn Jan, Luiten van Zanden Jan (2008). The return of the guilds: Towards a global history of guilds in pre industrial times. In J. Lucassen, T. De Moor & J. Luiten van Zanden (Eds.) The Return of the Guilds. Cambridge University Press,

Dominelli, L., & McLeod, E. (1989). Feminist social work. Basingstoke: Macmillian.

Harlow, E. (2004). Why don’t women want to be social workers anymore? New manageralism, postfeminism and the shortage of social workers in Social Service Departments in England and Wales. European Journal of Social Work, 7(2), 167-179.

Myer, C. (1981). Social work purpose: Status by choice or coercion? Social Work, 26(6), 74.

Ross, A (2011). Justice in action? Social work and social justice. MSW thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Ross, A (2014). The social work voice: How can unions strengthen practice? Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work 26 (4) 4-13

O’Brien, M. (2009). Social work, poverty and disadvantage. In M. Connolly & L. Harms (Eds.), Social work : Contexts and practice.(2nd ed). Auckland: Oxford University Press.

Van-Heugten, K. (2009). Thriving at work: Preventing occupational stress. In M. Connolly & L. Harms (Eds.), Social work: Contexts and practice (2nd ed.).Auckland: Oxford University Press.




2 replies on “Sisters in the struggle: Unions and social work”

Kia ora Amy and thanks for these thoughts. Unions are all of the things you say and I think have an important place in our society, more so in times when so much that we have taken for granted is under threat. For those workers who feel or are silenced by contractual obligations to support their organisation unions become a vital lifeline to challenge. The power (and anonymity if needed) of the group means it’s less likely that individuals will be singled out. All of our professional codes give clear mandates for social action and social change and as a profession we need to get louder! Kia kaha to SWAN and the work already done and more to come.

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