What Does a Union Mean to You? #5

What does a union mean to you? This is the question that we are posing to friends, workmates and fellow Wobblies as part of this ongoing series. Traditionally, trade unions have an association with heavy industries, transport, the public sector and professions – mostly stable work with a degree of social recognition. The IWW has always run against this thinking, maintaining that not just these but all workers in every workplace should be united under “One Big Union”. This has been shown throughout its history by organising sectors of the working class who have been marginalised, ignored or excluded from other unions – migrant and itinerant labour, women, children, people of colour, queer and trans workers amongst others.

It is in this spirit that this irregular series focuses on the experience of work that is located outside of traditional spaces, is organised informally or atypically, is poorly known or misunderstood. In staging these inquiries we hope to understand what the One Big Union idea means within contemporary capitalism, what social, political and economic functions unions must fulfil and how organisers can further support and amplify existing acts of solidarity within these sectors.

In this article we talk to Gemma about their experiences working in care.

  1. How would you describe your work?

I’m working in care work for a non-profit care company that supports its service users with learning disabilities – mostly in independent living. I form part of the night-shift team for a group of about 10 service users. My role involves a lot of talking and emotional support for young people who are experiencing fairly complex issues in their lives. I’ve been in the role for about 1 and a half years. My job role is Personal Assistant, however because this is 21st century those words mean little these days. I’m a care worker on barely above minimum wage pay in a city that’s rapidly approaching the cost of living somewhere like London.

  1. What do you like about your job?

Care work is something that I find comes naturally to me and I find interacting meaningfully with people to be the most fulfilling part of life. I enjoy seeing people grow and develop over time, and I feel deeply honoured when I play a part in that. If I was to describe or explain why I enjoy care work or social work roles it’d probably come down to the fact that I’m more invested in my work compared to working in a shop or call centre. I’m passionate about social justice and feel that I can somehow help with that in a paid care work role. Getting to know other care workers is a great experience as well since they come from a wide range of backgrounds and always have great stories to tell. Seeing how even under times of stress and desperation, workers are still able to have empathy and compassion for the people they’re working with is inspiring. Because I work night-shifts only I get a lot of downtime – even with the occasional emergency two or three times a week! This allows me a lot of time to pursue union related activity. I enjoy how much my coworkers in my team are happy to swap shifts to sort out the rota issues, such as the odd patterns they have us on as night-shift workers.

  1. What do you dislike about your job?

Where to begin? Every care worker will precede any honest appraisal of the job with “I do this job for the people I support… but”, and everything after that will be stories of incompetent managers, stressed out supervisors and under-resourced services. Companies taking on lucrative contracts without a single thought given for the needs of staff. They’ll be describing a story of how members in services got ill through negligence of a service user’s right to choose or NHS issues. They’ll talk about the times they were put into dangerous and complex services with only 3 shifts beneath their belts. They’ll describe in detail the horrors they witness as service user’s ‘friends’, family and trusted people in their lives forget, abuse or harm the service user and how they as their care workers feel unable to change the direction things are going in.

In my current job it’s become a running gag that every rota there’ll be some catastrophically messed up bit, someone being asked to work 8 days in a row or put on 15 hour shifts without being asked. There’ll be some small issue that was overlooked that un-does someone’s holiday plans they’d booked and been approved for. Payroll will constantly mess up your paycheck, especially if you’re taking holidays or off sick. There’s no way to see the hours that you’ve worked unless you keep a meticulous record at home (something I do recommend anyone who has to log hours does) Managers will regularly require members of staff to take pay cuts, knowing full well it’s illegal to reduce hours without a new contract. Don’t get me started on even trying to book holidays in the first place – all the services in my area are understaffed, some by as much as half as many people needed! The hiring of agency workers (which costs the company double, if not triple, the wages they pay someone employed directly by the company) or service managers working the same job role as the Personal Assistants and the PAs being given managerial roles like rotas and reporting. Recent statistics show that something like 25-30% of staff in any given care company leave within the first year or two (called churn if anyone’s interested follow this link).

Issues with incorrect equipment given on the job seems like an easy issue to challenge. You’re not given the right tools for the work you do, so you don’t do the work, right? Well in care work that’s a bit more difficult. A lot of workers come into this job expecting the company to be on their side regarding everything. People are recruited on the basis of appearing professional and well organised and so it’s understandable that they come into the job with high expectations. The reality is quite different. Equipment that’s missing isn’t noticed until it’s needed. Body fluid spill kits are things we had to request multiple times and nothing materialised until after an incident where one of our service users left stool all over the bathroom (we had to use another service users materials, waking them up by fetching them). There was another incident involving a client throwing a TV through a window. Staff resigned themselves to picking up large shards of glass in a room with still wet blood on the walls. We weren’t provided heavy duty gloves, or a kit to clean the room with and workers cut themselves on the glass. This also made this room uninhabitable for a week while the company delayed sending professional cleaners to remove all the shards of glass from the carpet in the bedroom.

Both these incidents could have easily led to more injuries. As care workers we are often here because we care about the people we’re looking after, and no-one wants to stand by and watch someone be hurt or be surrounded by hazards and not do anything about it. In this industry we are very rarely given time to read the policies in place for hazard controls, and very often the companies will flaunt health and safety best practice. This creates a disaster of awareness around hazards and what to do when they occur. Only experienced staff members have much chance dealing with these issues safely, or people who have a knack for understanding their job role and seeing that it’s too far beyond what’s acceptable to do.

In the night shift we’re lucky to have two members of staff on. In the above two incidents there was only one member of staff on, which as you can imagine, introduces further risks to service users inadvertently injuring themselves further while not being looked after properly.

I think enforcing health and safety policies and the law are probably the most effective solution to this if you’re by yourself in these issues. Companies and managers are extremely risk averse, and will take action very quickly when you start banding about words like ‘HR’ and ‘injuries at work’. However, this generally requires a great deal of reading and learning of risk assessments, hazard controls and Health and Safety legislation. If there are members in your trade union branches who are interested or knowledgeable around these particular issues then it’d be good to seek their advice and support.

If these issues are systemic and impacting a lot of workers they may also form a good basis for campaigns against the employer. Talk with your colleagues to find out if they’re experiencing issues around health and safety and inappropriate PPE (protective personal equipment) being supplied. I’ve found it’s a very good reminder to workers about how much a company actually cares about them. If their demands of being protected at work to  is being ignored then you can bet the company doesn’t care about other conditions too

  1. Is there anything that you do on the job that makes it easier/safer/more enjoyable?

A lot of my coworkers self-organise their own team without a great deal of oversight from management. The structures in place such as the company email address we’re assigned are very much a one way street for anything important. Most teams have their own WhatsApp group, making it easier to coordinate work activity. I’ve been pushing for any new team that doesn’t have these in place to get them sorted. When it comes to demanding our managers take on our concerns seriously we as a nightstaff team will regularly send the same email to the manager at the same time. Our manager very often pretend not to notice some of our smaller complaints, however they seem to think most of our complains are small, so when we’ve had enough we draft a letter and ctrl-c it to get others to highlight the issue. So far things get sorted out quickly when that happens.

I’m currently a dual-carder with a large care work union, I was very quickly accepted into the ranks of being a union rep after a 30 minute phone call with one of the permanent union officers who is supporting reps in the private care work sector. I’ve found that the union is extremely keen on getting experienced or keen shop stewards on the ground in this company, so much so that after just being a rank and file member of the union they put me on shop-steward training. I’m hoping to push coworkers in the direction of forming a union branch and keeping it radical, though that is yet to be seen how crushing the unions bureaucratic functions are (I presume very!).

  1. What does solidarity in your work mean to you?

In our workplace your time in service lasts months, not the usual years you often find. Things are bad right now and so much of that is due to the extreme staff turnover rate currently in the service. Our night staff team is a bit of an outlier, we don’t take the literal punches or knocks on the head that some of the day staff teams have to put up with. You’re considered a senior member of staff with 10 months experience here. The solidarity I see and practice is that of being someone that can be there to answer the questions about the awkward payroll system, or about what’s the best way to cook a service user’s food. It’s also in the empathy we give each other as care workers. I will sit and listen to when my coworkers talk of times they’ve felt physically sick from worry or when they’ve walked into a room that has a smell that sticks to you for weeks. It’s an awful and isolating job, that if you can’t offload those bad feelings at the end of the workday, you will be taking them home with you. The cost of care work to society is far more than just the wage that’s being paid to us, it’s also in our bodies and minds too. I’ve put on weight in this role, I know many of my colleagues have become extremely sick from the stresses of being worked too hard, from effectively 24 hours shifts (8 at night, 8 for sleeping night shift and then another 8 during the next day) The labour – physical, caring and emotional, is so utterly draining sometimes especially when something goes wrong in a service. It’s in these moments you see colleagues taking up the slack because people can’t go on and need a break. It’s in the way we all gather round a decision that management’s forced upon us and collectively say no without a hesitation. It’s the swapping of shifts to allow coworkers to see their husbands in other countries to prevent the home office from charging them several thousand pounds more for a new visa.

  1. What does a union mean to you?

The presence of a union doesn’t mean much to a lot of my coworkers here, they’re seen as good ideas in theory but not many people have experience of organising with them or considering them as avenues to enact change for better conditions and pay. There’s the usual feelings of skittishness and concern about seen as a trouble maker. Considering how isolated people are from each other in this workplace it’s not surprising. I believe a union is only as strong as the links between its members, and in the care work industry people are often kept apart from other care workers that those links barely get established. Even in your own team you maybe only see each other for 30 minutes a day during hand over and then it’s on to lone working for a full shift of 6-7 hours.

Reinforcing these links are essential, most people in my area have been fucked over one way or another by the company in some fundamental way and it doesn’t take much to get people to start bad mouthing the company. It’s amazing when you see them getting together to talk about these experiences, as the old saying goes “the personal is the political”, and people start catching on really fast that these issues aren’t with them but across the board. Building that recognition often takes the form of bringing those people together artificially at first, say in a cafe to meet to discuss workplace issues over a cup of tea, but also remember that they will have been talking to people they trust in their teams, usually a more experienced member of staff that seems cool and won’t rat them out to management. I’ve recently started trying to get coworkers to meet up with me outside of work and I think people respond well to having these thoughts and experiences listened to. I’m hoping to make these regular occurrences, and my next one should have a few more people at it. This is really early in the stages of building some kind of union organisation in my workplace, and I’m in a privileged position to do it, I can think about this while on the job and have time to plan and prepare. Many others don’t.


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