Representatives of Unite the union marched into the London headquarters of homelessness charity St. Mungo’s at 2pm on Monday (12 June), to cheers from the rally held outside. Two hours later they left – without a pay deal.
Unite members have now voted to extend strike action indefinitely.
Tuesday 30 May marked the first day of a month-long strike called by Unite, representing St Mungos workers. Industrial action comes after a pay dispute from 2021, where workers rejected a 1.75% pay increase.
Strike action was called this year after the pay increase was raised to 2.25%, which Unite members rejected, voting to strike by 93%. St Mungo’s said Unite’s position, which was originally based on a 10% backdated pay increase, would make it financially unviable.
“We don’t like the idea that wages are always the things that need to be cut,” says St Mungo’s welfare rights worker and Unite convenor Jacob Sanders, who along with two others were present at the national negotiations. “I’ve been asking for the management budget for the past 15 months. We need to see why there isn’t enough money for workers, when our CEO earns more than the prime minister.”
According to a statement by Unite, the pay of senior management at St Mungo’s has increased by 350% over the past decade, while the real value of the wages of St Mungo’s workers has plummeted by 25%.
The pay discrepancy between senior management and frontline workers is chief among the complaints I’ve heard from people on the pickets over the past fortnight. But it’s far from the only one.
Understaffing, out-of-touch management and job cuts all loom large in the tales told to me by striking workers, against the backdrop of Stokes Croft’s noise, at a time of rising pressure on homeless services – and a biting cost of living crisis.
‘The only appreciation we’re shown is a pay cut’
Frontline workers at St Mungo’s earn between £23,000 and £28,000 a year, with many struggling to cover the increasing cost of rent and bills. At the same time, their work – supporting people at the sharpest end of the UK’s housing crisis – continues to increase.
“We work weekends, bank holidays, nights, evenings,” says frontline worker Tara*. “They keep adding things to our job contracts year on year – we’re working with more complex clients due to the mental health crisis, and yet we’re paid exactly the same.”
Tara’s colleague Charlie adds: “It’s not just the money, it’s also about being appreciated for the work we do, how hard we’re working and the fact it’s got more difficult – the only appreciation we’re shown is an effective pay cut.”
Unite has contrasted this with the approach St Mungo’s has taken to paying the Chief Executive who’s salary has risen from £107,000 in 2013 to £189,000 in its most recently published accounts.
‘Run like a business’
The pay discrepancy is a bone of contention for Jack*, one Unite rep interviewed by the Cable.
“If you’re paying a CEO good money because you want a CEO, I get it,” he says. “But at the same time, if you want to get good support workers, good assessment reconnection workers and good mental health teams – why aren’t you paying good money there as well?”
On the picket line, Sanders is more uncompromising. “The CEO earns more than the Prime Minister,” he says. “We’ve got directors earning more than the leader of the opposition – it’s not right.
“If they are people who are taking that kind of money from a homeless charity, they are the wrong kind of people to make decisions for a homeless charity,” he adds.
For Sanders, the perceived lack of care by senior management is shown not only through their huge salaries. He claims the charity, which had total reserves of nearly £15 million as of 31 March 2022, is being “run like a business,” with money taken away from essential services.
Sanders points to a redundancy process affecting 21 posts started a few months ago – which saw the end of a psychotherapy service LifeWorks and a Housing Progression Manager.
“It’s counterproductive to make these roles redundant,” says Sanders, “If you value the work we do, you have to value the people that do it.”
In response, a spokesperson for St. Mungo’s said: “In a challenging fundraising landscape impacting the whole sector, we have had to take some difficult decisions impacting the LifeWorks Psychotherapy Service and our Housing Progression Coordination role.
“LifeWorks closes in July 2023 after a phased wind-down, supporting affected clients to manage the end of their therapy. The end of the Housing Progression role does not mean we are stopping the delivery of support for clients moving into housing, and the key responsibilities of this role will be delivered through other St Mungo’s teams.
“This is not something which has been done lightly, and we recognise how unsettling this may be for those impacted, for our clients and for everyone at St Mungo’s.
Meanwhile, in Bristol a mental health team of four are also facing redundancy.
In comments to the Cable, a spokesperson for St Mungo’s said: “As part of our periodic contract review St Mungo’s has decided that we are not the best placed provider to continue delivering two of our mental health services commissioned by the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucester ICB (NHS Integrated Care Board).
“As when any of our contracts end, we will always support our staff to transfer to the new service provider or explore opportunities for redeployment within St Mungo’s, with redundancies being a last resort.”
But others worry the effect of losing these teams will be to put more pressure on the emergency services, who are already overstretched.
“St Mungo’s are robbing bastards,” one picketer told me. ”How are they justifying paying their CEO £189,000 a year, and then telling us they can’t afford to keep crucial teams?”
“That kind of money [being offered the CEO] could literally keep our service afloat – and keep us in a job,” her colleague Charlie* adds.
For others, understaffing means the administrative responsibilities of the case workers increase.
One picketer I spoke to, a lone worker in supported housing, has eight women to support: “I manage the repair and the maintenance of the building as well as delivering key work sessions, trying to find housing, sorting out benefits, ” they tell me. “I’m in five different places at once. It’s crazy.”
“It’s really important these [administrative duties] get done otherwise people just have their benefits scrapped.”
Corporatisation of the charity sector
The strike at St.Mungo’s sits in a much wider debate about the corporatisation of the charity sector.
Emma Haddad, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s, said: “It was unexpected to hear that Unite has extended its period of strike action indefinitely. We are in the middle of discussions aimed at finding a solution and had a constructive meeting with Unite representatives on 12 June.
“Bringing an end to this unprecedented period of industrial action remains our key priority, so we can all focus on working together to support people at risk of, or recovering from, homelessness.”