Social workers step up strike in Labour Barnet

Barnet UNISON mental health social workers are about to start 9 weeks of strike in the next 3 months. They have already taken 27 days of strike before UNISON went going for arbitration at ACAS, where they returned empty-handed, writes Fred Leplat. Due to the Tory anti‑union laws UNISON had to re-ballot for authorisation. Members voted 100 percent for more action on a 91 percent turnout.


Mental health social workers support adults who experience mental ill-health to live safely and with dignity. In Barnet, the wait time for an assessment under the Care Act 2014 reached 17 months while the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman says 4 – 6 weeks is a reasonable wait. The reason for this failure is the high vacancy rate: 20 staff have left the adult social work teams in the last 18 months.

To address this crisis, the UNISON mental health social workers are calling for the Council to provide a safe service, no waiting lists and fair pay. But the Council refuses to apply the same recruitment and retention payment to adult social workers that it applies to children’s social workers who are in teams with better staff retention rates. They have offered just 2.6 percent extra which does nothing to meet the demands of the strikers.

The Council fails to acknowledge that it has a problem recruiting and retaining experienced mental health social workers, and that this is having a critical impact on the service. The Labour Council could end this nine-months long dispute quickly.

At the two meetings with ACAS, Barnet Council confirmed that they have twice the funding necessary to settle this dispute. It is clear that the Labour Council’s refusal to settle is not about the money, but about breaking the union and demoralising the staff, regardless of the consequences for this crucial service.

This week Barnet UNISON received a message from the Director of Adult Social Care stating that he had engaged the services of agency workers during the strike, an action which is unlawful. Last year UNISON defeated the government in the High Court over strike-breaking legislation that was introduced last summer. The High Court has ruled that the legislation which allows employers to use agency workers to replace those on strike, was unlawful, unfair, and irrational.

The UNISON members in the adult mental health team, who make up 95% of the workforce, are furious at this crude attempt to bully and intimidate them only days before they begin their strike. Unlike the new Labour Council, the Tories while in control of the Council never used agency workers to break a UNISON strike.

Elsewhere in the Barnet Labour Council, UNISON care and support workers voted overwhelmingly for strike action in a consultative ballot. They are amongst the lowest paid, getting just the London Living Wage, and were hailed as heroes for working through the pandemic, but they receive no enhanced rates of pay for working nights, bank holidays or overtime rates. On top of that they have had no pay rise for the whole of 2023! They are receiving the new rate of the London Living Wage 6 months after the new rate was announced with no backdating.

The attitude of the Labour council in Barnet towards its workforce and the unions gives an idea of what a Labour Government will look like. While we need to kick out the Tories, we also have to prepare for the battles ahead.

The dates for the strike by the UNISON mental health social workers are:

  • 15 April 2024 to 26 April 2024.
  • 13 May 2024 to 1 June 2024
  • 17 June 2024 to 12 July 2024.

The picket starts at 8am until 10am outside the Council offices, 2 Bristol Avenue, Colindale, London NW9 4EW, a 5-minute walk from Colindale station.

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