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The health and social care challenge for unions



A few weeks ago I had a preview of Unions 21's Changing World of Work report and was particularly struck by the predicted growth in health and social care jobs.

I wasn’t surprised by the fact it was the highest growth, but seeing the scale of the predicted growth made me realise the size of both the challenge – and the opportunity – that it gives to unions.

According to the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, 52.3% of trade union membership in the UK in 2019 was in the Public Sector. Therefore, this should be an area where the traditional trade unions structures should be able to bring these new workers into membership, right? Well, maybe not.

Much of this predicted growth is in the notoriously low paid social care area, which is largely in the private sector. These employers will either be small private organisations, larger players or charities. All areas where we have struggled to recruit union members in the past.

Even in the NHS, where according to NHS Digital numbers increased by 4.2% in the 12 months to January 2021, the growth in jobs is not all in the organised professions. For example, in my union, although vacancies have increase, there has been a flatline in the numbers of qualified podiatrists over the last 10 years. The increase, has been in support staff. Indeed, across the NHS the number of support staff increased by 26.2% between 2012 and 2020.

As I see it, we face 3 big challenges.

  1. A growth in the largely unorganised areas of social care.
  2. A growth in healthcare in newer areas without specialist unions.
  3. Vacancy rates in what are described as professional grades in the NHS.

But, we can also see first two are also opportunities.

Healthcare unions are already working to increase organisation in social care and pressing for better trade union consultation. That's one side, but we might also want to think about where future growth lies and look towards opening up memberships more to the support staff. Far better than falling into the old trap of entering into turf warfare over which union workers should be in.

The report talks about how to make it easier for people to join unions and we can all look at making our processes easier and even our membership subs. It will be important for us to work together to get the support staff into membership.

The third challenge is about making these professions more attractive to students but also opening them up more to the wider community. For us in podiatry, we are involved in campaigns to encourage more people into the profession by speaking to schools and encouraging the growth of apprenticeships and I know other professions are doing the same.

We can work together to promote trade unionism generally and getting organised. This is particularly true in social care. Unions can make a real difference by getting organised and improving terms and conditions and becoming more relevant.

Let's tackle this challenge together.