Charities strive to avoid industrial disputes

How are voluntary sector organisations dealing with possible walkouts? Kaye Wiggins investigates

Quarriers: Staff held a 24-hour walk out
Quarriers: Staff held a 24-hour walk out

Staff at Action for Children last week agreed to call off a pay dispute that lasted nearly a year and abandon plans for a strike ballot after accepting an offer of a one-off £60 payment to all employees before Christmas.

The move came weeks after a small section of staff at the homelessness charity Centrepoint called off strike action because the charity reached an agreement with the union Unite on pay and redundancies.

It is evident from reactions to inquiries by Third Sector about strikes that charities are extremely sensitive about any reporting of the disputes or the issues that may lead to them. "Charities go a long way to avoid disputes that could lead to strikes," says Brian Lamb, a public affairs consultant. "Most supporters and members of the public view charities as good employers because they are generally seen to be nice people.

"If they hear of charity workers striking, whatever the rights and wrongs on each side, they form a different picture of how caring charities are and how they look after their staff.

"It is a difficult issue that the public doesn't want to grapple with and it could have very damaging consequences for a charity's reputation."

The Scottish social care charity Quarriers experienced a strike in September, when staff walked out for 24 hours over proposed pay cuts. The charity has since settled the dispute by agreeing to cap pay reductions at 17 per cent, keep most pay cuts at between 3 and 5 per cent, and give a pay rise to some of its lowest-paid staff. A Quarriers spokesman says: "It was unfortunate the proposals led to some Unison members opting to take strike action. In the end, there were no winners. We would have preferred not to make the changes and for there to have been no strike."

Mike Short, a national officer at Unison, agrees that strikes can be damaging. "Good commissioners will want to work with charities that have good industrial relations and treat their staff well," he says. "If there has been a major strike because a charity has failed to negotiate properly, that is a bad sign to funders."

However, charities might have to get used to industrial disputes as the sector takes a growing role in public service delivery and as spending cuts bite. Short says: "We have seen an increase in the number of industrial disputes in the voluntary sector in the past year, although this is from a low base because for years there have hardly been any.

"There has been a gradual increase in unionisation in the voluntary sector as it has taken on more service delivery work, and there have been more disputes this year because of the spending cuts that have hit those service-delivery charities."

One charity employee, who asked not to be named, says he is more cynical about the link between service-delivery charities and strike action. "Sometimes I think unions want charity staff to strike because this makes it more likely that councils will take services back in-house, giving more power back to the unions because they represent more of those staff," he claims.

Short says the suggestion is ludicrous. "We just don't play those political, ideological games with our members," he says.

He says that charities and unions have more common ground than they realise because unions oppose the government spending cuts that have, in many cases, been the cause of the pay cuts and redundancies that can lead to disputes.

"We have offered to campaign alongside charities against the cuts to their funding, but so far they haven't been keen," he says.

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