I live in a country where trade unions are an extremely influential force in our day-to-day lives, none more so than in the Child and Youth Care profession.
I would be interested to hear the opinion of members on their experience of unionisation in the field and whether you consider their overall effect to be positive or negative.
My father used to say that a 'union man' is someone who does as little as he can and wants to be paid as much as he can for it. I always thought that was a deeply cynical view, but as I got older I met an increasing number of union advocates (usually the most vocal ones) who fit that description perfectly. Having said that, as a socialist I believe that capitalism promotes selfishness and greed and is inherently exploitative, so in any culture that promotes capitalist ideology, unions play an invaluable role in protecting workers.
John S. Byrne
In Ireland Social Care/CYC service were traditionally provided by the state and were unionized, but that is no longer the case. I am aware of residential child care services that are private for profit and who ruthlessly exploit their staff in the pursuit of profit. They pay terrible wages, create dangerous working conditions by using untrained staff when working with very volatile young people. Staffing levels are often inadequate and in some cases staff are expected to travel long distances on their day off and attend long meetings for free.
In summary, I can see both sides of the argument.
There is nothing more frustrating then lazy staff and services that are
so tied up in bureaucratic nonsense that they become ridiculously
inefficient, but it is simply wrong to exploit people. It seems to me
that where unions exist, they feel obliged to be in constant conflict
with employers and that is unfortunate since it inevitably leads to a
situation where both parties end up trying to 'get one over' on the
In an ideal world employers would be fair and reasonable, and workers would do what they are paid to do, but we don't live in an ideal world!!!!
With kind regards,
A few thoughts. Is Child and Youth Care a trade? If so, organizing members of the trade into a union might be appropriate. Trade unions are for the benefit of the members. Pay, working conditions, benefits, etc.
Or is Child and Youth Care a profession? If so, then a professional association would be more appropriate. Professional associations are for the advancement of the profession. Improving products and services. Public image. Professional advancement of members. Ethics. Standards. Pay might be an issue if the profession was unable to attract qualified professionals to meet the needs of its customers or clients.
I believe many teachers consider themselves professionals. In some places in the US, teachers have unions rather than professional associations. The union talks more about higher pay, ‘better’ working conditions (planning period, duty free lunch, days off, not having to work after school) than they talk providing quality education to children. They would have more credibility (with me anyway), if they talked about the needs of the children first, talking about pay only when higher pay was necessary to attract and retain qualified and talented professionals to provide quality education to students.
In my own (small scale) research on residential agencies, I found that some of the best programs were unionised. It seems to depend on the commitment and leadership of the most senior leaders in the organisation, and the climate and culture they create. If they can keep the focus on what is in the best interests of the children, at least most of the time, then being unionised need not be a problem. It may also depend upon the leadership in the union, but I did not have an opportunity to experience or study that.
Unions served an absolutely vital role in achieving all the advances in working practices that serve to deliver services and protect the most vulnerable in our society. We would not still have the remnants of our welfare state in Britain if the much depleted Unions didn’t keep on fighting for social justice. Capitalism only delivers any semblance of social justice when dragged kicking and screaming to the table.
However, the massed forces of global capitalism and
the neo-liberal ideology that has been with us in the west for the past
4 decades has determinedly fought by all means necessary to destroy,
deplete and demoralise organised labour.
Unions are also to a degree culpable for losing sight of their founding principles and in particular remaining male dominated and ‘conservative’ in their engagement with change in society. The deep suspicion and cynicism that the people has for politicians is often rightly extended to Union leaders.
We are seeing, here in Britain, the insidious creep of privatised care for children and young people, for offender services and a range of other services. This would have been an anathema to our forebears. When the ideology of the right tries to dictate the discourse that states that the market should decide and people are commodities to exploit for profit we have to resist, subvert and ultimately destroy their consensus.
Membership of a union is one step, being active to reform the union another and continually speaking truth to power is essential in all our practice.
Thank you for raising this challenging issue. Others have written so eloquently about it that I thought I might let what has been said stand but your point energised me so much that I am afraid I could not resist putting in my polemical penny's worth.
My own view is that in a sense all Child and Youth Care workers and residential child care workers are trade unionists striving to ensure that the kids they live and work with have better experiences than the poor ones they've had before.
Secondly we have colleagues who would argue that residential child care is about children and adults living together and that it is – if it's to be done well – a way of life rather than a job.
Thirdly, I know there are all kinds of myths and
sometimes difficult truths about trade union power but I think that on
balance we in the UK can have little doubt that over the last 150 years,
and more, trade unionists have struggled and suffered to help all
workers, including residential child care workers, have jobs with some
security of tenure and with reasonable working conditions. Since the
Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and through the New Labour
governments of Blair and Brown, trade union power has slowly but
ineluctably been eroded. The current Conservative/ Liberal Democrat
coalition government felt workers needed even sterner treatment and now
working conditions for most care workers are insecure and (as ever)
poorly paid. Now many workers in England – as public services have been
drastically cut – are asked to carry out the same functions in the
private sector with less pay, often on "zero hour" contracts, working
only when the employer thinks they are needed. In residential child care
all too often "care" is offered according to commercial needs and not
according to the needs of children. In this climate it is difficult to
see how the consistent well attached relationships we are trained to
develop with children and young people can ever be attained.
Finally sorting this out for the better will be a tough and well nigh impossible task. We worry about the 'radicalisation' of certain groups of people in our human community but the trouble is the vast majority of us are radicalised to some extent or another to act on behalf of a faith called the capitalist system which is based on competition, which requires that there must always be a few fully radicalised winners, a larger number of sleeping radicals, (I include myself in this group) who are paid just enough to keep quiet about the gross inequality which exists in our human community, and then there is an even greater number of losers in our system who struggle in poverty and die a lot younger than we do.
Residential child care has never been a huge money spinner but there are private companies and governments who are intent on the industrialisation of what should be a personal, intimate experience from which everyone can to an extent emerge as a winner. I still think strong well organised trade unions set against the financial exploitation of poor people have the potential to be a force to help keep love in our vocation.
I have almost exclusively working in unionized settings throughout my career and strongly prefer this environment. While there are negatives (such as people who should be let go sticking around) there are many benefits. The three big ones for me are:
1. Pay / Benefits – In a field where we are not compensated as well as we should be for the hard work we do, my unions have helped provide me with a decent wage.
2. Rules to govern working conditions – From schedules, to shift switches to any number of things, I find it incredibly helpful to have the ground rules laid out for both management and non-management. As long as you're dealing with reasonable people, having rules laid out can only serve to decrease disputes.
3. A voice, free of reprisal – Let's face it, we do a hard job and there are a lot of factors which contribute to us being able to do our job effectively. As an advocate for both the youth and the staff teams I worked with it was always important for me to be able to say what I wanted (professionally, of course) in a staff meeting without fear of being "punished" by management for expressing an opinion which may be contrary to theirs. I have never been anti-management as I think this is a ridiculous stance but I have always been pro-child and I feel it's our job to speak up when the children and/or families aren't being served properly. Some people are never going to be comfortable disagreeing with their boss but for those who are able to speak up it's great to be able to do so without fear.