“Combined with the action at Shelter in late 2022 and some local disputes, the St Mungo’s strike highlights deteriorating pay and conditions in the voluntary sector, which has increasingly become a poor substitute for a denuded welfare state.”
By George Binette
Under the mainstream media radar, hundreds of workers supporting some of society’s most damaged and vulnerable are waging a battle to end years of real pay erosion. More than 500 Unite members at the homelessness charity, St Mungo’s, are striking indefinitely.
The escalation in their fight comes after an initial four-week walkout failed to budge the organisation’s senior management, which has stubbornly refused to increase a pay offer of just 2.25%.
Frayed Safety Net
St Mungo’s frontline staff work across hundreds of projects in Bournemouth, Brighton, Bristol, Leicester, Oxford, Reading and across most every London borough, dealing with more than 3,000 people daily, many of whom would otherwise be street homeless. A high proportion of those in the organisation’s hostels struggle with long-term alcohol and/or substance abuse; others suffer from severe mental challenges, while some have been victims of domestic violence.
The combination of more than a decade of austerity and the ongoing fallout from the pandemic has intensified demands on St Mungo’s programmes. With squeezed resources the workforce seeks to support those who have fallen through a miserably frayed social safety net. Their reward? In crude financial terms, their salaries typically range from just £23,000 up to £28,000 a year for full-time workers with a reported average of £26,000 in London. The combination of low pay and increased workload has fuelled rising staff turnover with vacancies often unfilled for months.
A Bare Cupboard?
The organisation’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Emma Haddad, until October a senior civil servant at the Home Office, insists that the cupboard is bare, and that St Mungo’s cannot possibly meet Unite’s demand for a 10% rise. Haddad’s last role in central government from February 2021 to October 2022 was as Director General for Asylum and Protection, having served during those 20 months under both Priti Patel and Suella Braverman.
Striking workers with whom I’ve spoken are convinced that St Mungo’s management have taken several decisions that have worsened the financial picture even as they refuse to be transparent in negotiations about the level of reserves.
According to Unite, the budget allocated to senior management salaries has skyrocketed by 385% over the past decade with CEO Haddad’s own pay now topping £189,000 annually (a figure partly mandated by the Charities Commission’s guidelines). Management has also moved to spend on a new IT system, while outsourcing the organisation’s IT support, occupational health function and, crucially, building maintenance. A striker from one of St Mungo’s facilities in Hackney told me that outsourcing had led to avoidable delays and multiple invoices for the same job.
Meanwhile, St Mungo’s stands accused of spending substantial sums, which could have begun to address their workforce’s demands, on hiring agency staff to break the strike. Haddad’s previous career at the Home Office has hardly endeared her to Unite activists in this dispute and some accuse her of displaying a rude, condescending attitude towards union representatives in a recent negotiating session.
Role of Labour Councils
St Mungo’s “business model” relies heavily on the commissioning of services by local authorities, not least Labour-controlled councils in inner London. With that in mind, Unite’s tactics have included targeted appeals to Labour councillors, urging them to write directly to Emma Haddad. There have also been several demonstrations outside town halls and other council buildings in boroughs including Camden, Hackney, Lambeth and Westminster in addition to protests outside St Mungo’s east London HQ in a building that was previously occupied by Murdoch’s News International.
Combined with the action at Shelter in late 2022 and some local disputes, the St Mungo’s strike highlights deteriorating pay and conditions in the voluntary sector, which has increasingly become a poor substitute for a denuded welfare state. Despite the recent upturn in strikes, all-out, indefinite action remains rare, making the outcome of this battle crucially important not only for the workers themselves, but for Unite and the wider labour movement. The St Mungo’s strikers should command moral and practical support from fellow union members and the Labour left.
- Unite is offering strike pay to members taking action at St Mungo’s, but with the action now indefinite the workers’ Housing Association branch has launched a fundraising appeal. Support the appeal here.
- You can show your support for striking workers on the St Mungo’s Unite members on Twitter.
- George Binette is the Trade Union Liaison Officer for Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP, writing in a personal capacity.