Friday, 10 June 2011

Shouting out worked for striking speech and language therapists

Written for PCS magazine VIEW 

Nobody considers taking strike action lightly - especially speech and language therapists in a deprived London Borough.

So it’s great to report that, against a background of local community support, a strike by a group of them has forced Southwark Council to re-consider its plans to cut essential services for vulnerable children. Those involved now hope it will encourage others facing cuts to stand up for jobs and services.

It takes at least four years training to become a speech and language therapist [SLT].  Their role is to assess and treat speech and communications problems in people of all ages. In Leeds Lindsay’s daughter is 17 and has benefited for more than a decade by having a “language therapist that sees her as an individual who needs help in breaking down the communication barriers that have threatened to isolate her.”

Intervention at an early age is vital as major studies have found that in ‘any primary school class there are at least 2 or 3 children whose speech development is a source of concern’ [1], a figure that rises to 50% in areas of social deprivation. [2]

Major parts of Southwark are amongst such areas. Lying 1.5 miles east of Charing Cross and fronting the River Thames it includes Bermondsey, the Borough, Peckham and Rotherhithe. All places where getting a good SLT can really make a difference to a child’s future. None of which would appear to have initially concerned Southwark councillor’s when late last year they announced they were cutting the funds they provided to Southwark Primary Care Trust [PCT] to pay for speech and language therapy for children.

It meant that from a total PCT staff team of 33 a third; including three SLT assistants faced the axe. With PCT management claiming the cuts had nothing to do with them a bunch of employees with little campaigning experience and no previous strike record had to decide if they wanted to resist such a devastating loss of jobs.

Being in a trade union, on this occasion UNITE, helped. Leaflets highlighting their case were quickly produced. Councillors were lobbied, but with few sounding sympathetic and final redundancy notices almost in the post it was agreed said Unite workplace rep Stephen Hack “to find out if the increasing anger was enough to produce a vote for strike action.” A ballot organised by the Electoral Reform Society demonstrated it was and February 3rd was selected as the day to walk out.

The night before a well attended rally heard Unite general secretary Len McCluskey promise the union’s “full support” on grounds that “the government are attacking our welfare state and we now need to raise the consciousness of ordinary people. It is so important that your strike embraces this wider political context.”

On the day itself no-one crossed the picket line and passing members of the public saw for themselves how organised and determined the SLT team were to defend their jobs and the services they provide.

Just as importantly it would appear that local councillor’s also had to take notice of the fact the strikers had clearly garnered significant community support. Those with their hands on the budget were reminded of this fact via an online petition, not forgetting a stream of letters to the local papers backing the strikers. “We wanted to maintain the pressure in order to get them to reverse their decision” said Hack.

Which in early March is largely what Southwark Council agreed to do, restoring 70% of the original cuts and ensuring no-one was made compulsory redundant. Unite is also continuing to protect posts even when staff move on, the aim being to maintain service levels.

No wonder Stephen Hack is “proud of the fight we have waged. It wasn’t easy to take strike action. It was forced upon us, as it was the only way we could defend jobs and services. The council noticed what we were doing, listened to our reasoned arguments and had the good sense to change direction. We are pleased at the outcome.”

1. Lock study in 1994

2. 2008 Bercow Report. 

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