“We won our pay deal by standing firm and standing together. Public support for trade unionism is the strongest and most wide-ranging it’s been in my lifetime, and I’d advise anyone not in a union to join one.”Jacob Sanders, St Mungo’s covenor
By the Trades Union Congress (TUC)
After three months of strike action and tireless campaigning, the workers have agreed to a pay increase which works out at 10.74% based on a median wage or £3,125 in cash terms.
The strike began back in May and the dispute involved Unite members in London, Bristol, Brighton, Oxford, Bournemouth and Reading.
Jacob said: “At the start of the Covid pandemic back in 2020, every St Mungo’s worker received a letter from our Chief Executive, telling us: ‘you are essential workers carrying out essential services.’
“While the letter helped protect us from legal challenges when undertaking work-related travel during lockdown, there were some things it couldn’t protect against. Travelling to work on public transport was high risk for contracting Covid-19. Arriving at work was riskier still – appropriate PPE wasn’t available for months and our clients had some of the highest levels of vaccine refusal, mask refusal and vulnerability to Covid due to pre-existing ill-health.
“But we took those risks, we carried on, worked hard and delivered the services our clients so desperately need, to the very best of our abilities.
“As increasing inflation started to bite in 2021/22, the employers’ side at the National Joint Council (NJC) imposed a 1.75% pay rise – in real terms, a pay cut of about 5%. Because St Mungo’s pay scales are linked to the NJC, we got the same real terms cut. That was where our pay dispute began.”
Unfair and derisory
Jacob went on to explain: “I was elected convenor for St Mungo’s Unite in March 2022 with the main aim of turbo-charging our campaign for an improvement in that year’s pay increase – which we felt was unfair and derisory.
“A pay rise petition, open to all St Mungo’s workers, was presented to management. The petition also meant we had a long list of St Mungo’s workers who were not Unite members but had given data protection consent for us to send them emails. Over the months that followed, our list of non-member petition signers dwindled as more and more of them signed up to join Unite.
“Over the next year, we tried everything we could think of short of going on strike to persuade St Mungo’s management to make good the shortfall in our 21/22 wage increase, and to give us a fair pay increase.
“There were emails, letters, protests, more emails and tortuous avoidance of dispute
procedures. A meeting at ACAS resulted in an offer of a one-off payment. But were prices going to come down again the following year? We didn’t think so. We needed a permanent pay rise.
“In December, workers at the charity Shelter went on strike and won a permanent pay
increase. We knew we could do the same.”
Jacob told us: “A strike ballot with a 71% turnout and 93% vote for strike action brought about a change of heart from management. In April, they offered £1 million a year for distribution across the workforce – an average of £600 or £700 per worker.
“It was rejected by members, but at least it was – for the first time – a consolidated offer. A move in the right direction. But the strike had to get underway for things to move further.
“At midnight on 30 May, St Mungo’s night workers stood up and went home.
“Fewer workers arrived on shift in the morning, and those who did encountered picket lines. Many workers were persuaded to return home.”
Jacob went on to say: “That was where things got interesting. At the picket lines, passing council workers and bus drivers honked in support, but also a lot of private motorists, including those driving Audis and BMWs, gave us their support.
“In Oxford I was telling a group of pickets about my surprise when a passing police car
in Stokes Croft, Bristol had honked to show support for a St Mungo’s picket line. A police officer happened to be walking past and overheard me. ‘I’d honk to support you if I could,’ he said.
“As the dispute went on, strikers were shouted and sworn at by the CEO, alternately burned and rained on by the English weather and had the doors of dubious employment agencies firmly closed in our faces. Our strike lasted three months. And, to cut a very long story short, we won.”
Winning fair pay
Jacob said: “The deal we achieved included an additional consolidated £1,200 a year for each worker to be paid on top of the NJC scales, an increase in annual leave, long-term agreement on higher mileage rates, a commitment to family-friendly policies on maternity and paternity leave and greater openness about the organisation’s finances.
“The financial parts of the deal were enough to undo the long-term impact of the real terms pay cut of 2021/22. Our wages are still too low, but they are at least as high in real terms as they were when we got that letter correctly recognising our status as essential workers.
“It’s really hard for workers at a homeless charity to go on strike. Society relies on the personal qualities of people in the charity sector to hold everything together. Their compassion and commitment are qualities you can count on.
“But the message for decision-makers is – don’t push it. Like NHS workers, charity workers are not failing but are being failed by politicians. Our grievances are political, and the changes we need require a new policy direction at the government level.
“We won our pay deal by standing firm and standing together. Public support for trade unionism is the strongest and most wide-ranging it’s been in my lifetime, and I’d advise anyone not in a union to join one – together we are stronger, and we are winning.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This was a hard-fought battle resulting in victory for St. Mungo’s workers who are dedicated to helping the homeless.
“The workers took action because they were under huge financial and mental pressure, and they weren’t being listened to by management.
“Unite will continue to defend workers when employers refuse to do so, in the fight for better jobs, pay and conditions for our members.”
- This article was originally published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) on October 20th, 2023.
- You can show your support for the St Mungo’s strikers and the campaign from the Unite Housing Workers Branch on twitter here and on Facebook here.