Charity staff strikes: why now?

December is a busy month for public sector walkouts, as nurses, postal workers, bus and train drivers and border force all entering strikes that are staggered across the festive period. Many charity employees are too embarking on strikes, which are happening in stages over the course of the month. But why are charities in this position, and how will agreements be reached?

Since the pandemic, there has been a significant recruitment crisis within the charity sector, which has coincided with stagnating wages and a cost-of-living crisis, forming a perfect storm for action. Charities are facing increased funding pressures, and in a sector where low wages are already common, both organisations and staff are seriously struggling.

Historically, funding pressures, coupled with the rewarding nature of the charity sector has led many charity employees to settle for a less competitive salary to that of corporate counterparts. But rising inflation rates and a soar in the cost of living has meant many staff simply cannot afford to ‘give back’ for less.

On 5 December, workers at homelessness charity Shelter went on strike for two weeks. According to the union Unite it will involve more than 600 workers.

The action was taken after workers rejected a 3% pay increase for 2022, which Unite says has been “imposed” and leaves staff with a “huge real terms pay cut of 11 per cent” considering double-digit inflation. The union claim the management’s pay award “has left many of its own staff being unable to pay rent leaving them haunted by being made homeless”.

Talks collapsed after the charity “refused to increase” its pay offer for 2022, according to Unite. Instead, Shelter offered a 4% increase for 2023/23 “with no further pay increase for staff until April 2024. As such, Unite has accused the charity’s management of refusing to “enter into meaningful negotiations with representatives of Unite over this year’s pay deal and has instead sought to impose one-off payments and real terms pay cuts for the next 16 months”.

“It is unforgivable that workers at Shelter find themselves actually being haunted by the prospect of being made homeless,” says Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “Shelter has sufficient reserves to pay its hardworking and dedicated staff a decent pay rise but it has chosen not to. Our members at Shelter will receive Unite’s complete and unyielding support in their fight for a better deal.”

One charity staff member says: “At the very base level, absolute bare minimum, those working for a housing charity shouldn't be experiencing housing insecurity as a result of being unable to pay rent.”

Another adds: “I'm a single parent. I'm now in overdraft every month. I go around switching my lights off. I have turned my boiler down. I get stressed when the kids’ school wants me to pay for another school trip. The best acknowledgement my employer can give me for all my hard work is decent pay.”

Charities, however, are also facing increases, and Shelter says that it’s working to navigate “these challenging economic times.”

“Regrettably the cost-of-living crisis is impacting both our colleagues and operational costs," explains Tim Gutteridge, Shelter's director of finance and strategy enablement. "Industrial action is not the outcome we wanted after months of talks with the union, but we fully respect people’s right to strike.

“Some of our services and shops will be temporarily impacted during the strike, but we are making every effort to continue to serve those in need of our help. Anyone who needs urgent housing advice should visit here to access our digital advice, and services information."

He adds: "Our ambition remains trying to support colleagues through this difficult period, while being able to deliver our frontline services and campaign work. This year we gave all staff a pay rise – which for non-management staff means an increase of between 8% and 12.3% - consisting of a 3% consolidated increase and a one-off payment of £1,500.
“As a Real Living Wage employer, Shelter is also implementing the Real Living Wage Foundation’s increase of 10.1% from December 2022, much earlier than required, benefiting the colleagues who receive this at the earliest opportunity.”

Increasing workloads

The pressure on charities is increasing, as the demand for charitable services rockets amid the current economic climate. Against this backdrop, increased workloads for staff are already stretched. Workers at support charity Hestia in Hounslow have announced a two-day strike over “low pay and workloads.”
Unite says that the charity’s management is “refusing to negotiate with Unite over a cost of living pay increase and the provision of adequate travel expenses” adding that “bosses have outrageously threatened Unite members with disciplinary action if they discuss pay with colleagues during work”.

Other concerns raised by Unite about the charity include “understaffing and imposing unrealistic changes in working practices” that put services at risk. Unite adds that the charity’s referral service has received a recent increase in council funding.

“Hestia management are running this important service into the ground,” says Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. “They’re ignoring dangerous understaffing and low pay. They must acknowledge this now and have meaningful negotiations with the union. These workers have Unite’s full support.”

The union’s regional officer Steve O’Donnell adds this is the first strike action in five decades at the charity, which launched in 1970. “Workers are struggling to make ends meet and Hestia has a recruitment and retention crisis because of poor pay and conditions. Excessive workloads have reached dangerous levels and still bosses refuse to engage with the union. So management must address these problems urgently or the strike goes ahead,” he adds.

A worsening recruitment crisis

Of course, if charities cannot keep up with inflation and strikes become more common, then there will be an increasing recruitment and retention crisis.

Funders are being called on to do more to help charities tackle these challenges, with leaders warning of exhaustion and mental wellbeing concerns across the sector.

The research carried out by IVAR among 32 charity leaders warned: “This sense of exhaustion means that many dedicated people are considering their future. Already a concern during the Covid emergency, leaders have seen an escalation of frontline staff leaving their organisations and other colleagues moving away from senior leadership roles.

There is widespread concern about the breadth of talent leaving the sector, as well as the demands on teams as they cover additional roles.”

Funders are being called on to step in help to subsidise some of the rising costs and increases in employee pay, through focusing on multi-year unrestricted finding and allowing them to adapt and change project plans and budgets if needed.

Extra funding could help with some strike action. At Birmingham charity Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT), workers have voted to strike in a bid to keep the organisation open. Members of the United Voices of the World (UVW) union want the charity to halt plans to shut down “and instead keep providing vital services to the migrant and refugee communities in Birmingham”.

They also want management at the charity to recognise the union and allow it to collectively bargain “for better working conditions and pay”, the union said in a statement.
“Our members see no credible reason to dissolve this much needed service, UVW calls on the labour movement to back our members to save a crucial legacy of the anti-racist struggles of the people of Birmingham and assert the right of charity workers to organise,” UVW organiser says.

UVW is also representing members working for North London care home charity Sage, which are to vote on strike action due to the cost-of-living crisis. Care, domestic, maintenance and laundry workers at the home are to vote over Christmas on whether to strike in January next year.

They are calling for £14 an hour wages, a sick pay scheme in line with NHS rates, a paid one-hour lunch break and enhanced weekend and night shift rates. The union says that the 37% pay rise achieved in the previous strike action over “poverty wages and lack of PPE” has been turned in a pay cut due to the cost-of-living crisis.

Sage worker Lamin Conteh adds: “We’d like to be recognised for the job we do. This includes being paid a decent wage, that our employer builds capacity in the workplace and that it takes care of us when we are sick.”

Ultimately, it looks as though charities will struggle to find a balance between staying in the black when funding sources dry up, as well as retaining staff in the sector when wages are battling against the cost-of-living crisis. Will strike action be the answer? Time will tell. However, continuing to build a strong relationship with funders and campaigning for external financial support will be crucial to securing much-needed cash in the year ahead.

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