Bristol Care Workers Network statement on the Stand up to Mencap! demo on October 27th
Who are we?
Bristol Care Workers Network is a grassroots union for health and social care workers in Bristol. We take inspiration from radical and syndicalist unions like the Solidarity Federation and the IWW. We reject the top-down, bureaucratic trade unionism of the TUC. Instead, we favour a worker-led, do-it-yourself style of organising.
What’s the issue?
Mencap recently went to court to overturn a ruling that sleep shifts count as working time for the purposes of calculating the national minimum wage. Because of Mencap’s actions, thousands of low-paid care workers will now have their pay cut even further. This has come at a time when non-payment of the minimum wage is at its highest ever level, and the care sector is one of the worst-effected industries. Bosses were already routinely ignoring minimum wage laws; the Mencap judgement has effectively legalised the wage theft that was already rampant in the sector.
Mencap claim that the sector can’t afford to pay the minimum wage; we agree that there is a funding crisis in social care but we absolutely object to the hole being plugged with cash from care workers’ wage packets. Mencap say that they are lobbying the government to properly fund care workers’ pay so that employers can pay the minimum wage for sleep shifts. We are very skeptical of this claim. We reject the naïve notion that employers simply can’t afford to pay NMW, and without any legal power to enforce NMW compliance, bosses will continue to under-pay sleep-in staff even if the funding can be found.
Wage theft was a huge issue in the care sector even before the Mencap judgement, and we were already organising and agitating around this issue before the changes to the law. We recognise that local authority contracts limit how much employers can pay, and we accept that change needs to come from the Government, not just from the bosses. Our campaign against wage theft in the care sector did not begin with Mencap, and it will not end here either. We chose Mencap as a target for a public action to a) raise awareness of what they have done and b) to hopefully deter other employers from treating the workforce with such contempt in future. Workers have teeth; if the courts do not recognise that, then the bosses should.
Roughly 30 people met us on College Green in central Bristol. BCWN is a young and relatively small organisation, so we were happy with the turnout. Among the crowd were members of Bristol Solidarity Federation, Disabled People Against Cuts Bristol and South West, Bristol Anarchist Federation, Bristol IWW, Bristol Anarchist Black Cross, Bristol Antifascists and South Bristol Labour Party. We feel this show of solidarity from a cross-section of campaigning organisations reflects the breadth and significance of this issue for the working class as a whole.
The demo itself was a lively, good humoured and relaxed event. It was a great opportunity for us to meet and engage with prospective allies, raise awareness of the network and build links with Bristolian workers. We were lucky enough to have two fantastic speakers; Zoe from DPAC Bristol, and BCWN’s own Brian (not his real name), with two different but equally relevant perspectives on the issue of wage theft in social care.
While planning the event, we talked about using militant and ‘spikey’ tactics if the opportunity presented itself. On the day, we felt the scope for militant action was limited. Although we did not cause significant disruption, we still feel the demo was a success for the interest that it generated, and the platform that it gave us to put forward our arguments. We hope to capitalise on this in our future actions.
As stated, Mencap are not the only guilty party here. We will keep educating, agitating and organising among our workmates to take the fight to the bosses and the council. BCWN is a union first and foremost. This event showed that we can hold the streets when we want to, but our biggest battles will always be in the workplace.
Law or no law, we intend to keep fighting for fair pay for care workers. If you work in the care sector and you are not happy with your pay and terms, then get in touch with us. We can help.
We would like to thank all the attendees, Bristol Solidarity Federation for the guidance and inspiration, Bristol Anarchist Federation for some much-needed practical support, and Bristol Antifascists for keeping us all safe. We would like to thank South Bristol Labour Party for coming out, although we want to point out that BCWN is not affiliated with any political party and does not endorse any form of electoral politics. We would especially like to thank Zoe from Bristol DPAC for the moving and powerful speech-we were privileged to be there to hear you; moments like that remind us of why we keep fighting.