Amanda McKenzie works as a social worker in London.
Tell us a little bit about the work you do.
I’m a social worker for an inner-city London borough. I currently work in a team working with adults with learning disabilities. My specific job involves working with people with learning disabilities who also have mental health problems, and I also work with learning-disabled parents. A lot of the services related to this type of work, such as care home provision, have been privatised but my work is still directly run by the local council.
Do you and your workmates get the pay and conditions you deserve?
Conditions are much more of an issue than pay. The biggest issue is workload. There’s no control over how manageable your workload is. Because our work is effectively emotional labour, and because we’re working with with very vulnerable people, there’s a lot of pressure. You know that if you don’t pick up cases then there could be seriously bad consequences.
There are other problems with conditions, too. Where I work management sold off a lot of buildings which meant we had no office space for a long time. We’re now “hot-desking”, which brings its own stresses, and we had to move into our current building before it was finished.
Has the economic crisis affected your work? Has it affected the way workers think about their jobs?
It’s affected people a lot. The media is constantly full of talk about how good public sector workers have got it, and that makes people feel insecure. People’s feelings about it develop in complex ways; some people feel that they do have it pretty good so feel quite lucky, but there’s also a lot of anger at the media portrayal of the public sector as a paradise for workers and a recognition that its not really like that.
A saying that you hear a lot is that “there’s no slack in the system”. Management is often looking to cut temps and agency staff, and the union’s not been particularly good at defending them as it prefers to defend the permanent jobs where its members are.
But if those temps and agency workers get cut, who’s going to do their jobs? The economic crisis has also affected us in subtler ways; the crisis has been used as a cover to slash benefits, which has big impact on many our service users who’re on benefits. We’re dealing with more poverty and hardship in the lives of people we work with.
Management are now proposing £6 million worth of cuts across adult social services in the area. They’re saying that we have to take the cuts because health services are protected. They’re playing one public service off against another.
What do people talk about in your workplace? How easy is it to “talk politics on the job”?
I’m lucky because my immediate workplace is quite small and very well unionised. There’s quite a high level of political culture, and even when people are just grumbling about making ends meet they understand that as political.
There’s the usual sense of powerlessness you find with a lot of working-class people, but my workmates are quite engaged so I find it easy to talk about politics in my workplace. The nature of our work also affects people’s political consciousness. Because of what we do, social workers tend to have a sense of the inequality that’s our there in society and some level of opposition to it. You don’t get many Tory social workers!
But because of the fact that we’re providing vital services to vulnerable people, there’s also a real fear about taking action like strikes in order to defend and extend our own rights.
Do you enjoy your work?
My job is a real mixture of the rewarding and the frustrating. My workplace and my colleagues make it rewarding but management and cuts make it frustrating! I see within my job a real potential to support people and help them achieve what they want to in life, but we don’t always have the resources to give them the support they need.
You can quickly get sick of shitty decisions that you’re asked to carry out. There’s a proud history of social workers simply refusing to implement policies from management that they knew would negatively effect service users, but that’s much less common now. The training we’re given is all about “competency” rather than values. To rebuild that kind of culture we need to look at rebuilding basic organisation and collective structures.
What are your bosses like?
It’s a mix. Some of them are ex-workers who’ve been on the frontline, but some of them are just capitalist administrators and bureaucrats. In recent years there’s been a move away from managers doing actual casework so they can be disconnected from what workers are actually facing on the ground, but the better ones are genuinely concerned about their staff.
There’s also a gender divide; most social workers are women but the higher up management you go the more men you’ll find.
I think there’s been a certain naivety from ex-workers who’ve gone into management jobs. Some people became managers years ago thinking they could change management practice and policies, but instead have ended up changing themselves. No matter how much a manager might care about their staff or the people we’re working with, at the end of the day they’ve got a specific role to fulfil.
Is there a union in your workplace, and does it do a good job?
I’m a member of Unison. My workplace has nearly 100% density, but some of that is down to the hard work of a particular steward who’s been in the workplace for a long time. There’s a decent union culture; we get together once a fortnight to have a “shop meeting” and people expect to maintain communication with the union. They want to get reports of what’s gone on at branch or conference. Little things like keeping the union noticeboard updated are important.
If you could change one thing about your workplace, what would it be?
Change the targets culture. Our job should be about helping people, not about meeting management targets. Beyond that, it would be something around spending policy. There’s a constant alarmism about money, with managers constantly running around telling everyone we’ve overspent. I always make the obvious point that actually, we’re underfunded. I want to see us properly funded so we’re able spend whatever’s necessary to fully provide the services the people we work with need.