A crowd of striking workers gathered around a banner that reads "housing workers"

In spite of the stitch-up deals appearing left, right, and centre, the UK strike wave continues to rumble along. In a moment where the momentum in many of the larger disputes appears to have seen better days, workers at St. Mungo’s, a large homelessness charity providing temporary accommodation and other services to rough sleepers, burst onto the map with four weeks of all-out strike action, which they quickly escalated into an indefinite strike. We spoke with one of the workers to try and get a better sense of what’s been going on. 

For further insights from the current strikes in the UK, you can read our interview with a mental health nurse here, reflections from striking health workers here, an interview with a striking tube driver here, and an interview with a striking post worker here. As always, we want to hear what’s been happening where you are. Get in touch: angryworkersworld@gmail.com

Would you like to begin by introducing yourself and your role?

So I’m a project worker at St. Mungo’s. I had a permanent contract for a year working in women-only, complex needs accommodation. Project workers are sometimes called support workers in other services. Basically you’re the frontline, first point of contact for people in accommodation. I would have between 4 and 6 clients that I’m responsible for, so I would have one-to-one meetings with them, and keep an overview of their support, even if my colleagues are helping out as well and there are loads of other professionals chipping in.

And then because it’s in accommodation I work shifts. There are normally 2 to 3 people on a shift. You’re always there for everyone and know everyone that lives in the accommodation. It should be a client-facing role where you spend time with the clients but in reality you spend a lot, a lot of time on reporting. Obviously it’s really important to write things down, for example when you’re trying to make a case for other services, like why someone needs to move on or why they need a certain kind of support, but there’s also a lot of reporting that has to happen because the teams are so unstable and you don’t have enough staff and there’s lots of turnover. So you have to document a lot of things to ensure information doesn’t get lost, but at the end of the day there’s so much information that people won’t be able to read everything you write down anyway.

And then a lot of it is about maintenance. All of our buildings are falling apart, especially the hostels. They’re quite old buildings so there’s quite a lot of running after maintenance because maintenance has been outsourced as well, and therefore works even less.

And then there’s the contact with all the external services. So that could be doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, families. I also support my clients accessing education, work, or activities – in the community or within the service where we organise them.

Could you give some background on the current strike? What was happening at St. Mungo’s in the lead up?

Yeah, so the pay dispute was going on for 18 months before the strike started, so it’s now been over 18 months. Unite is the main union at St. Mungo’s. Unison is also recognised, but Unite, at least by the time I joined, organised 500 out of about 1300 permanent staff or people on contracts for a year or two. Then there’s 300 locum staff, which are internal agency staff on zero hours contracts. Now since the strike started we have over 800 members within Unite.

18 months ago the demand was for a 10% pay rise because frontline staff have lost 30% of their pay over the last ten years, and also because senior management has continued to go along the line saying that the funds are not there, one of the main demands has to be for them to open the accounts. The only thing we have access to are this year’s headline figures and the accounts from 2021/22 because they were published in the annual report, but since then we haven’t had the full financial picture of what’s happening.

The first strikes were announced for the end of April originally. So members had voted to go on strike and then we got a first offer, that we declined, and therefore the strikes had to be postponed, so then started on the 30th of May. We first announced 4 weeks of continuous strike then extended to indefinite strike, and now it’s still ongoing. We received one more offer that we declined and negotiations are continuing.

As you mentioned, the St Mungo’s strike stands apart from most others in the last year in that you jumped straight into a 4 week all-out strike followed by an immediate escalation into indefinite action. What do you think explains such a strong response from the workforce?

I mean, strikes have been going on in a lot of similar sectors. We’re part of the social care sector that teachers are part of as well, the nurses are part of, the doctors are part of, and we’ve been seeing how strikes have been taking place over two days or three days and that’s quite easy to organise around for the employer. To organise cover or just not provide the service for two or three days. I think that’s why the membership were so clear that we can’t just walk out for two days. It’s not going to make a difference. 

Also, especially at frontline, there are a lot of agency staff. St. Mungo’s spends £5 million a year on agency staff. It’s quite an interesting comparison. The first offer that we got, in April, that we rejected, was for the distribution of £1 million as a pay rise. So there has been this tendency for a long time to use agency staff and obviously there are amazing agency staff, but in general it means that it’s people who are employed precariously, because they’re zero hours contracts. It means they’re people who potentially don’t have training, do not know the services at all, that are working in services that are very high risk and where people deserve staff that are well trained and well looked after and that they’re permanent and have a team that holds together.

So we knew that if we just went out for two or three days it wasn’t going to work because they’d just cover us with agency staff. And also what’s happened over the last few weeks is that obviously not everyone has gone on strike. In some services not that much has changed. You just have a bit more agency staff maybe coming in, and the service is poor, which is how it’s been for years. So it was clear we had to really do something where we hurt the employer otherwise they’re not going to make a move.

Could you say any more about what the discussions have been like about other strikes? Has it been a very active topic in the workforce, trying to draw lessons from other disputes?

I guess in a certain sense we couldn’t look much to other disputes because very few disputes have announced indefinite strikes or even announced a four week continuous strike. Our reps team initially proposed three weeks, but then our membership said, “no, we want to go for four weeks – three weeks is not enough.” And again, when it came to the decision about whether to go on indefinite strike, we’d already been on strike two weeks. We got our first meeting with the CEO the day before we had to announce further strike action, and again in this case our convenor asked if we wanted to stop and start again, or do two weeks rolling, but an overwhelming majority of the membership said, “no, we have to go on indefinite strike, we have to make a very clear sign that we’re determined not to go back into work because our demands have not been met.”

We’ve had really, really good support from other disputes and other unions and other workers. I guess because a lot of people were like, “wow, what’s happening here.” We’ve also tried as much as we could to go out and speak to other people and support other pickets. We’ve definitely learned also from other pickets. I went to the junior doctors’ pickets and it was really interesting to learn the maths. They also lost, I think, 26% over the last ten years, and were therefore asking for 35% to restore their salaries. We asked for 10% but had lost 30, so we would actually need 43% to restore our pay. All of that was also part of learning how employers make their moves, how do people organise, how do they try to get more members in, how do they organise their pickets and their rallies, how do they gather solidarity not only from their members but also from their service users, like patients or students. We’ve definitely learned loads from other strikes that are going on as well.

So you mentioned the relationship between striking workers and service users. How’s that been in your case?

So specifically at St. Mungo’s we’ve had loads of support. In my service, we explained in our monthly residents’ meeting what the strikes are about, and the ones that were there were really supportive. I’ve obviously told all of my clients that I work with, but then also in the last few days leading up to the strike, when it was clear there was going to be no settlement, I really started actively speaking about it with all the residents that I encountered, and everyone was supportive. They would say, “we support it. You deserve it. We understand…” And given that I work in complex needs accommodation where a lot of the residents have a lot on their plates already and would not normally engage with the things happening around them, I found it very surprising that they were like, “yeah of course you need this.”

I couldn’t picket at my own service because it’s a women-only hostel and we decided not to picket any mental health services or women-only services, to protect the residents from the increased public attention that pickets would attract. I picketed at another complex needs hostel, a mixed hostel, and lots of the residents obviously go in and out, or they sit outside, and were always really, really supportive, singing along in the chants, speaking to passer-bys and cheering us up. So yeah, there’s been a lot of support.

And what’s the recent history of disputes like at St. Mungo’s looking a bit further back? And how do you think those experiences might have influenced the current strike?

So at St. Mungo’s, if I’m remembering right, there have been two other strikes in the past. In 2014 there was a really big strike because St. Mungo’s fused with another organisation called Broadway. At the time St. Mungo’s was really well unionised and Broadway was not at all, and Broadway was much more corporate as an organisation. What happened was basically that they took over the business model of Broadway and wanted to create a much more corporate kind of organisation, and then decided that they would match the salaries of the St. Mungo’s workers to the Broadway workers, which meant pushing them down because the Broadway salaries were much lower than St. Mungo’s, as they are with this corporate kind of organisation. So then a massive strike broke out. I can’t remember if it initially went on for ten days or they extended it to ten days, but then they had their demands met, so the salaries were actually matched the other way round – the Broadway workers were scaled up to match St. Mungo’s.

Then there was another strike, I think in Brighton only, in 2020 just before COVID broke out. That started literally a day or two before COVID broke out and then was called off.

In terms of the influence of that history, I think it’s quite astonishing – or maybe not – but each time there is a strike and demands are met people are still aware that the organisation is changing in a direction they don’t want it to, because it’s taking away resources from frontline and really moving the values in a different direction. I guess some people must have left as well though since 2014 and there were quite a lot of disciplinaries against people, so I guess management tried to push people out that had organised during the strike. 

At the time, in 2014, a lot of the managers went on strike as well. Not only service managers but regional managers, who are a lot closer to central management. The services, in a certain sense, run quite independently. They’ve got their own budgets, they’re going about their day-to-day business, so they’re quite far from the central office. This time though I think we’ve had basically no regional managers that have come out on strike, and also a lot less of the service managers, because the gap has become a lot bigger. Frontline staff, and I would consider any manager within a service still as frontline staff because they are there with the residents and working in the really shitty buildings that are falling apart, in comparison to anyone that works in central office at Thomas Moore Square – or from home – which is a really fancy building which costs them £1 million a year in rent.

So things have definitely changed a lot since then, and I only joined the organisation last year. Even people that have been with St. Mungo’s for a long time weren’t unionised and really weren’t interested in the pay dispute for a long time. So even if there is that history a lot of that knowledge has been lost.

What do you think’s changed? If a lot of people weren’t interested in the pay dispute for a long time, where do you think this increased engagement has come from?

I think it really comes from how the organisation is set up, because if you create an organisation that is very corporate and where frontline services are completely ripped apart you have a very big divide between the central management and the frontline services themselves. And seeing that we have a senior management made up of people who haven’t worked frontline and might come from very different sectors, like our trustees, it obviously also means that they don’t have the same interests as frontline staff. And because it’s become so much more difficult to work frontline, these teams will have a very fast turnover and anyone that tries to change anything will be pretty quickly pushed out or move on to somewhere else. When I joined my service, we had two permanent staff within the project worker team; that should be six. When I started I thought that was unusual, but now with the strikes, I realised that’s just normal across the organisation. 

So it’s really difficult as well to create trust amongst the team. The commitment to the cause [of the strike]. Why would you try to invest all that time? Risk losing all that money? Risk not being promoted later on? If it’s a position you’re probably just going to pass through and then move on to somewhere else where they pay better.

And if those are conditions which make it less likely that people would engage in the dispute, what have been the tendencies which have led to more people getting involved as time’s gone on?

The salaries have reached a point where people can’t survive on them. I would say that people in this sector know in general that they won’t be paid as much as in other sectors. They really care. And they want to provide a really good service, so will usually prioritise that instead of trying to change things on an organisational level. There’s also no time. I mean, in the last year I’ve thought several times about becoming a union rep but there’s just no time. There are so many emergencies constantly happening, there are so many things that we have to organise in the service that I just can’t find the time to organise on another level. 

Another thing is that a lot of the frontline positions at St. Mungo’s don’t require a specific education to come in, nor specific training, so it is accessible to a very wide range of people, which is great. Which means that a lot of people who do have lived experience are able to enter, or people who have a criminal record, for example due to their past experience of living in homelessness, can enter the organisation and really bring what we need. But it also means that people are in more precarious situations already, and have to just accept what they get as a salary because they wouldn’t be able to get that salary anywhere else.

How effective do you think the strike is being at the moment?

Yeah, it’s a difficult question. Because we’ve had more negotiations up until Wednesday and we haven’t really had any additional offers in terms of pay. And yesterday we had the members’ meeting, and obviously it’s coming into week eight, so there have been lots of discussions about how effective we are at this point, because some people might be going back into work. 

But there are a lot of things that we don’t really see, like the public pressure we’re putting on. We’re reaching out a lot to councils because they’re the ones commissioning services and it’s their money which is being mismanaged right now. A lot of money is being spent on agency staff at the moment. But we can’t really gauge that, how much pressure is being put on senior management. We can’t really see, so it’s not very clear at the moment how much leverage we have.

The other thing we spoke about yesterday was the court ruling, which hasn’t been published yet officially, but regarding the law, which was pushed through parliament very quickly last year, saying that you can actually employ agency staff during strikes. That has been deemed unlawful, which is good for our strike, but it might not come through in time to have an effect on our dispute because I think it’s going to be published on the tenth of August, so we won’t see the details until then. But that could give us more leverage. 

More generally I see this as being part of a broader process. Obviously St. Mungo’s is not the only organisation working in the sector. We’ve unionised loads of members. People feel much more united. People have been politicised and educated on what our rights are, what we’ve lost over the last years, what we should continue to fight for. So no matter what deal we finally accept, when we return to work there’s a lot more potential to fight going forward, and we have a lot of knowledge that we can bring to other organisations and other pay disputes that are ongoing. Hopefully the use of agency staff does get prohibited again during strikes, because that’s going to massively impact how the strikes develop over the next months.

This is something you’ve already referred to a little bit, but obviously all workforces are fragmented by different kinds of divisions, like between different job roles, or contract types, or migration status, or gender, or background, or whatever. As you’ve said, St. Mungo’s is no exception to that. And then beyond that workers as a class are fragmented, between different workplaces or different unions, for example. But it’s been really nice because there have been a few times at St. Mungo’s pickets or rallies where I’ve heard St. Mungo’s workers talk about how the strikes have begun to slowly challenge some of those divisions. Could you say a little bit about your impression of that dynamic within the strike?

Yeah definitely, it’s a really amazing space to be in, because you’re finally out, really working together on things. It’s really, really difficult in this sector to operate as a team, because there’s so much pressure from all sides that often teams are ripped apart. There are a lot of elements to it, as you mentioned; there are very big divisions even between people who have been in the organisation for a long time and people that have arrived new. I think that plays an important role in unionising too. By creating an organisation that is so corporate they’re really making an effort to make their workers feel replaceable. And to create conditions where they become replaceable. So I only learned during the strikes that St. Mungo’s previously offered education that was recognised at a national level. So they would properly equip their workers and make them feel that they are valuable, which doesn’t happen any more at this point. 

I’ve been told many, many times when I’ve been speaking up about things that I just need to move up into management, but I’m like, “I’m not interested in moving into management,” because even when you work in management within a service you have no client contact whatsoever. I obviously understand that in the frontline it’s important to have opportunities to step back from client contact and supervise other colleagues, but there’s so much work that is created, an administrative system, which takes away time from the real work, which should be spending time with the clients and really supporting them, instead of having to send all these reports to levels higher up and spending loads of time on that. 

And I’m obviously one of those cases, of a new worker coming in. Really young and really motivated. Seeing how precarious the services are. And then trying to bring loads of things together and working beyond what is expected. Then seeing where we can bring the service and what we can actually provide for the clients, but then realising that it’s absolutely not sustainable. I don’t have kids myself, for example. I’m physically healthy. So I can go into work and concentrate fully only on that and survive on my salary, but most of my colleagues can’t do that. So they really have to set boundaries and there are a lot of things they have to stop doing, because in the past there would have been other people employed for that and now it’s all being pushed on them. It’s not possible to hold that workload

You just spoke a little bit about how the strike has provided opportunities to really work together, in the face of the divisions and fragmentation of the workforce. Have management attempted to reimpose certain divisions in order to split up the strike? What other tactics have you noticed management using to try and undermine the strike?

From the beginning there’s obviously been a division between members and non-members in terms of the information people are going to get. Management have been focusing on creating a very clear narrative for people who don’t have access to the information that we share within the union. Obviously we try to spread information as far as possible but we only have the member contacts so we’re not able to send emails to non-members. It’s going to be more difficult to speak to them if they’re working in a service we’re not picketing for various different reasons. So what management have been doing since the beginning is that they’ve always portrayed the union as troublemakers, as people that are confrontational, that are attacking. 

Our new CEO, Emma Haddad, I think she’s been in post since November. She came straight from the Home Office, which is obviously a big concern for all frontline staff, because in the past St. Mungo’s has worked with the Home Office to target rough sleepers for deportation. They initially disputed that, but then an independent investigation was done and they had to admit to that happening. Since then, the union has been pushing for a written agreement to be signed by management stating that in future there will be no further cooperation with the Home Office. But they’ve refused to put that in writing, and said they’re disappointed that their workforce doesn’t trust them, which is an interesting way of putting it because obviously we don’t trust them! Like, you did it, you lied about it for a year, and you only publicly acknowledged it after you were caught out by an independent investigation. So there’ve been a lot of concerns about Emma Haddad joining the organisation. I think one of the first meetings that was organised with her was organised with the union and also the diversity network, because of concerns about how she could change St. Mungo’s approach to migrants. A lot of our clients are migrants. A lot of our staff are migrants. Since the beginning she’s painted it as personal attacks, people not trusting her, people not wanting to give her a chance. 

There’s also a lot, a lot of talk about political correctness, which for me personally is very interesting because I’m not from the UK and I’ve started to understand how important that non-confrontational thing is, and how quickly you’re going to be called out if you are confrontational. It was also really interesting to see with the signs, because at the beginning when people were coming up with slogans or chants it would all be like “please” or “do you mind” [laughs] And it’s like, “what is this about?” [laughs] We’re getting fucked over big time and we’re still asking politely. 

All the management communication is always like, “yeah, we ask strikers to be respectful at the pickets” and then constantly pretending that they were taking steps forward with the negotiations, which they weren’t. And then also spreading misinformation on the pay dispute. The pay dispute is about asking for a 10% increase at St. Mungo’s but then senior management have been using other agreements that have nothing to do with the pay dispute, for example the NJC, which is the national scale that our salaries are connected to – which wasn’t always the case but I think also came about because of a strike. So they’ve been including that increase, which they’ve already agreed to, in the pay dispute and claiming they were going to reach 10%, which is not even the case for any of the workers. You could look at the calculations and there wasn’t 10% anywhere but they would still claim there was 10% coming, and that was obviously the information that was going out to people who were not members.

How would you describe the relationship between the union and rank and file members during the dispute? Where and how does decision making happen? Has there been much of a bottom up dynamic? Do you have mass meetings to decide on tactical questions? Or elected strike committees?

So we don’t have elected strike committees. We have local committees that are not elected but are made up of people who’ve put themselves forward and said they’re happy to take on a bit more. We’ve got elected reps and we’ve been having very regular meetings. So even if no negotiations were going on we’ve been having regular meetings, which have all been online so far. We’ve had over 300 members sometimes in those meetings. In response to the first offer we received, the only offer we’ve had so far, there was an electronic ballot, which had a turnout of 77% and 62.2% voted to reject. That was on the 29th of June. There’ve been no major additions since then in terms of money and therefore there hasn’t been another electronic ballot. Because the mandate is that we’ve rejected a situation where the lowest paid workers would receive around a 5% pay rise and the median wage around 3 or 4%.

The members’ meetings are a chance to hear people’s opinions on things, to vote on certain things, for example for the indefinite strike we voted in a members’ meeting, or we voted on the offer in a members’ meeting and that was communicated in the electronic ballot, saying that we had a members’ meeting already and the offer was rejected but we obviously wanted to put it out to everyone that wasn’t able to come to the meeting

How often are there disagreements between union officials and rank and file workers? How do they tend to get resolved?

I think it’s important to say that there are very few union officials involved in any way in the dispute. We’ve got one person paid by Unite and then our convenor is paid by St. Mungo’s, I think three days a week, to do union work and has obviously been accompanying the whole process. That’s an elected role, and he’s a St. Mungo’s member. And then the reps team are all St. Mungo’s workers, mostly working in frontline roles. At least the ones I know and that are very active are majority frontline staff. I think there are about 20 reps but not all of them have been that active during the strike. So they come together and discuss ideas then put them forward in members’ meetings for us to discuss and vote on, and the reps team are the ones going into negotiations. So it’s not like we have a group of people who are not St. Mungo’s workers making decisions without us… 

In a certain sense there’s also the issue of a lot of people not knowing how a pay dispute works or ever having been in negotiations, but I think that’s also the strength of the strike because they are members and workers as well. So even if there are different kinds of discussions happening in the members’ meetings and different opinions I’ve never seen the reps attacked for taking decisions removed from the members. The reps team are always really thanked. Because obviously they’re doing this out of their own time and working even harder than everyone else that’s on strike and they’re really, really appreciated for what they’re doing.

But in that respect I really don’t know how it works in other disputes. It seems a lot more fragmented. You’ve got a lot of disputes on a national level, so you’ll have your local committees that might be elected and then come to a bigger conference, and ballots, and people doing negotiations that are quite removed from the member base. But with us anyone that’s involved with the strike will know the reps team, by name, will have spoken to them in person, because we’re on the pickets and at the rallies together. And that creates a very different kind of trust.

It’s probably unsurprising that another big topic on the pickets at the moment seems to be escalation, or the potential for escalation, but I’m also picking up quite a lot of caution after the disciplinaries people experienced after the last big strike. So it seems like there’s a balance between the recognition that what’s happening now might not be enough and there might be a need for something stronger or harder, and a level of uncertainty or apprehension about tactics outside of conventional strike action. Do you have any thoughts about what might be a good direction to take at this point?

Yeah, this is a difficult question, because as long as we stay within the legal framework of striking we’re protected by the strike laws. But even that doesn’t necessarily fully protect you because if they try to go for disciplinaries they will. And even if you have a strong union that stands behind you, it’s really horrible to be in a disciplinary, on so many levels, and fear for your job. I personally don’t want to give any indications on that because I’m no longer a permanent staff member and I don’t think I should be deciding on this. And specifically in terms of my position, I don’t need this job. I could work somewhere else and I’m therefore not as dependent, and I think people who’s future depends on being able to work at St. Mungo’s should decide on what action they want to take.

I appreciate you making the time for this. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish?

I guess just really to remind people that without coming together and unionising we wouldn’t be at the point where we’re at now, and we just have to continue to do this. Because even if we get something, just looking back at the past we know we could be at risk of losing it at any time. It’s only if we stand strong and we know what our rights are and what the history is, and what’s been stripped away, that we’ll be able to fight it. I really want to remind all of these amazing people that I’ve met at St. Mungo’s, and now especially through the strike – because I’ve been able to meet people from so many services – that they’re all such amazing people. They care so, so much. They do such an amazing job. They’re such great advocates for their clients. But they’re really not good advocates for themselves. They very often undervalue themselves, their opinions, their knowledge, and their experience. Also in the face of other professionals. And I really, really hope that through this experience a lot of people are going to realise how important what they’re doing is. And that they’re not replaceable. And if an organisation or an institution or a government starts to replace them, then they’re replacing good services, and they’re stripping apart what we could actually provide for the most vulnerable people in our society.