Common Weal Dundee: How workers and trade unionists sent Dundee City Council away to think again on care reforms

The local Common Weal group in Dundee reports on a recent local meeting in which members of the community won a victory against a poorly developed care plan - but the battle is not yet won

DUNDEE CITY CHAMBERS was the venue for a lively meeting of the policy and resources committee last month when more than 50 members of the city’s social care employees and their trade union representatives crammed into the public areas.

Earlier, in excess of 100 had gathered outside in the city square, braving the cold night air to let their feelings be heard. Chants of "no cuts!" and "no split shifts!" rang around the encircling buildings.

On the agenda for the councillors’ discussion was a report from the chief officer of health and social care integration, Councillor Ken Lynn. This proposed many changes to the way in which Dundee would operate its home care service for its service users, with massive changes to the contracts, terms and conditions of this largely female workforce.

These staff currently hold a 30-hour contract which would remain, except that their rota would only cover 25 hours each week and the remaining five hours would be 'banked' for management to use, whenever the need arose, due to sickness or annual leave.

Among these proposed changes was the requirement that the vast majority of staff move to a double shift system where they would start at 7am (it's currently 7.30am), work a shift for a number of hours ranging from three to six, return home and then turn out again in the evening for several more hours, finally ending the day at 10pm. This would then repeat again for two and a half or three days.

These staff currently hold a 30-hour contract which would remain, except that their rota would only cover 25 hours each week and the remaining five hours would be 'banked' for management to use, whenever the need arose, due to sickness or annual leave. Staff on their days off could foresee that management would simply demand that rest days be forfeit, if the service required them to
work.

Since childcare generally isn’t available at 6.30am, the proposal means that the double shift system would be unworkable for many with young children. The option open to these staff was to cut their contracted hours to 23 hours on a single shift rota. This would remove between £350 and £435 per month from their wage packet with other implications for their pensions in years to come. These
workers cannot afford such a pay cut.

The council was addressed by a union official and by a member of the workforce, making impassioned pleas not to subject a loyal and much-praised workforce to these ill thought-through changes. Both speakers confirmed that the unions and the employees were willing to accept changes if they were needed to meet changing demands, but that these changes were badly planned and communicated, and were demoralising the workers. 

They spoke about how the double shift system had been piloted by teams volunteering to try them out and how the staff involved had been subject to increased tiredness, sickness and stress as a result. 

Since childcare generally isn’t available at 6.30am, the proposal means that the double shift system would be unworkable for many with young children.

A 14-week pilot study was now in its 15th month with no end planned, and the staff involved were fed up of being exploited. It was also pointed out to the councillors that management had made statements to the effect that staff would have to accept the new contracts or they would be dismissed and re-hired on
the new system; either that or the entire service would be privatised.

The union official pointed out that this threat of privatisation had implications for all staff employed by Dundee City Council in all departments, and that the union response would be to ballot the whole of the Dundee City Council workforce for industrial action.

The speakers were questioned at length by different councillors and this served to bring out much more detail about the proposals and how they will affect workers an a daily basis.

The councillors then moved on to hearing from their officers who were promoting the changes. Firstly they were asked if the service users affected by the pilot study had been consulted for their views. They replied that they hadn’t deemed it necessary.

Increased flexibility and increased contact time were the main aims of the changes. They hadn’t arranged for any health checks of the staff starting the pilot study because "there was no evidence that split shifts could cause any threat to health”; the figures that they had demonstrated no change in sickness rate across the trial group, and that they did value their workforce. Sounds of derision were heard from people on the public benches.

The option open to these staff was to cut their contracted hours to 23 hours on a single shift rota. This would remove between £350 and £435 per month from their wage packet with other implications for their pensions.

One councillor queried the statement about there being no evidence of health risk with split shifts by quoting the health and safety executive website which states clearly: "... If at all possible, avoid split shifts."

Another commented that improving service delivery should not lead to any detrimental effect on the staff that deliver that service.

It's interesting to note that all the questions and contributions to the debate came from the Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors with nothing at all being said by any of the Conservative and SNP representatives; this is an SNP administration. 

One Lib Dem councillor, Councillor Fraser McPherson, commented that "there was no way on this wee green planet, that he would vote to approve these proposals". It soon became clear that this report was not going to have an easy passage as had been assumed by the health and social care management team. 

It was not a great day for the SNP administration in Dundee, which should be ashamed that it let this report get to this stage without being challenged.

The SNP leader, Councillor John Alexander, clearly saw the way things were going and called a 10-minute recess, during which decisions were taken. On resuming, he announced that he was sending the report back to the authors, including the SNP chair of the joint integration board, Councillor Ken Lynn, and asked them to continue formal consultation with the trade unions, to properly explore the views of the service users, and to report back by the summer recess.

It was not a great day for the SNP administration in Dundee, which should be ashamed that it let this report get to this stage without being challenged. It speaks poorly of the level of governance being practiced in this city.

This victory, albeit temporary, was cheered to the rafters by the assembled workers while the management team looked daggers at them, or fled the room with lowered heads.

Picture courtesy of WorldSkills UK

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