Shelter's house is split down the middle

The charity's staff went on strike last week in protest against planned redundancies, pay cuts and changes to their terms of employment. John Plummer got the views from both sides of the picket line.

Shelter staff strike
Shelter staff strike

It is 8.15am on a clear and cold March morning in London. Most people are rushing to work, but 50 people huddled outside Shelter's headquarters have decided to forsake a day's pay to go on strike instead.

They are protesting about planned redundancies and changes to employees' terms and conditions at the charity. About 25 staff will lose their jobs; another 50 face having their positions downgraded and everyone must sign new contracts extending their working week from 35 to 37.5 hours by the end of the month or be dismissed. These are not happy times at Britain's biggest homelessness charity.

Shelter's management says change is necessary if the charity is to remain competitive for statutory contracts, which contribute £12m towards the charity's £46m income. But the people shivering outside aren't convinced. Not all are from Shelter: some are trade unionists from other organisations and one person is selling copies of Socialist Worker.

The majority, however, are long-serving staff who are desperately unhappy at what is happening. Leaflets distributed by Shelter members of the T&G section of trade union Unite blame bad management rather than funding. The leaflets say money has been wasted on "fat executive salaries and plush offices" and that the changes "threaten to destroy Shelter's good name as a radical independent campaigning organisation". They are also keen to point out that this is not an organisation in financial crisis.

Michael Hyde, one of six Shelter housing staff based in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, has been out holding a banner since 7.30am. His team is being halved and he has chosen to take voluntary redundancy to become a barrister. "I wanted to stay another six months," he says. "But I'm not interested in competing with friends for jobs.

"What makes us angry is management saying we don't care about our clients and that going on strike will hurt them. We are the people on the front line, so we know what impact this will have. We didn't take this decision lightly."

His colleague, Mhairi McDowell, is being downgraded from a grade four to grade three specialist housing officer, which will trim her salary from £26,800 to £23,500. McDowell, who has been a housing adviser for 10 years, has four-year-old twins and is far from happy about having to work an extra two-and-a-half hours a week on less pay. "Shelter has got a fantastic reputation and has been such a good employer," she says. "But what the charity is doing is unnecessary, given its financial position."

The picket line is in full swing as non-striking staff arrive for work. Elizabeth O'Hara, the head office shop steward, asks them not to cross. "You can ask me, but I'm going to," says one. Most scuttle in sheepishly with their heads down. By 9am the strikers are getting impatient to jeer Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter, who hasn't arrived yet.

Each passing vehicle that toots its horn is greeted with hearty cheers, but since this is rush hour London it is difficult to know whether the drivers are showing solidarity or road rage. However, this is the first day of the strike and everyone is buoyant. "This is about what Shelter does with the funds it gets," says O'Hara. "Taking contracts for funding changes the type of service we offer. Management says we have always taken statutory funding, but the difference now is that it is given in contracts rather than grants, and that comes with strings attached."

Dot Gibson, president of the National Pensioners Convention, a campaign group, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the strikers. "They are taking a stand on a principled issue," she says. "The voluntary sector should not be used to undercut public services." Trevor Watt, a case worker in Bristol who is taking voluntary redundancy, says: "People with 20 years' combined experience are leaving in Bristol. The most senior person left has six months' experience. It has completely decimated the service."

Suddenly, at 9.20am, Sampson arrives and darts inside so quickly that only a couple of strikers have time to boo. He agrees to talk to Third Sector and we traipse up and down the stairs to find a spare room because the elevator is out of order. "Even the bloody lift is on strike," he jokes.

Then he gets serious. The cuts, Sampson insists, are necessary: 71 per cent of income goes out on wages, he says; staff get 30 days holiday a year, 10 per cent pension contributions and work fewer hours than many charities. Salaries are benchmarked to other voluntary organisations. Three senior managers did get increases in autumn 2006, but it was to bring them in line with the benchmarks, he says.

Is Sampson a fat cat? "My pay is not allowed to go above the average chief executive's in the £20m to £50m voluntary income bracket," he says. The average, he adds, is £103,000, but his is below six figures.

"Hours are being increased because our cost base is so high," says Sampson. As for the head office refurbishments, he says the cost of the work was less than the value it has added to the building, which Shelter owns. He says the changes will avert a "more brutal" alternative - drastic job losses.

"We do not exist to provide jobs," says Sampson. "The value of Shelter should not be judged by the amount we pay our employees."

The dispute, he says, is not just about statutory funding but the wider economic downturn. "We are going into a recession," he says. "That means money is tighter for everybody. Ask any fundraising manager. That's the real story." So far, he has been unable to convince those standing outside. With 200 staff yet to sign the new contracts, he has until the end of the month to persuade them, otherwise a bad situation could get worse.

The dispute rumbles on...

The Shelter dispute has rumbled on for almost a year. It began in April 2007 when management proposed new terms and conditions of employment, including an end to incremental pay rises, working an extra two-and-a-half hours a week, job losses and regrading positions.

Shelter says the staff wage bill is rising by £1m a year and is unsustainable if the organisation wants to submit competitive bids for public sector contracts.

Trade union Unite intervened after three months. It accused the charity of wasting money that could have been spent on wages.

The arbitration service Acas also intervened without success in December. In January, Unite accused management of bullying staff into accepting the new terms. A month later, staff voted 211 to 78 to go on strike.

Ken Loach, whose seminal drama Cathy Come Home helped to launch Shelter in the 60s, urged donors to stop supporting the housing charity. "It is a political failure of the Shelter management if they do not see that homelessness is exacerbated by hard-line employers," he said.

A second strike was due to take place on 10 March as Third Sector went to press, but Shelter is refusing to blink, saying staff will be dismissed if they do not sign new contracts by the end of this month.

They said it

'It is very sad to see such an important and valued organisation as Shelter resort to this'

- Ken Loach, film director

'People who give money to Shelter expect it to be used to help people in housing crisis, not to pay for top executive salaries, expensive new IT systems or smart new offices'

- T&G section of trade union Unite

'We have had 10 years of relatively benign economic conditions. Those times may be over. We are going into recession and money is tighter for everyone'

- Adam Sampson, chief executive, Shelter

'Shelter is supposed to be an independent charity, yet our future is practically being dictated by government'

- Michael Hyde, staff member, Shelter

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