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Remaking the case for unions as a good to society

Hilton Dawson's speech to the Unions21 fringe event at Compass Conference 2011

"I'm delighted to be here to take part in this important debate as a social worker qualified for 29 years, as a member of the Labour Party for the past 32 years and as a Trade Union General Secretary since last Tuesday. 

Following a resounding vote at one of the best attended AGM's in the 41 year history of the British Association of Social Workers this week our Council took the first step to creating the arms length Social Workers Union (SWU). We are now seeking certification of independence and we hope to be applying for membership of the TUC very soon. On Tuesday we had 12 members but given that BASW has 13,500 and membership of the SWU comes free to them we hope to expand very quickly over the summer.

As one of the most undervalued and denigrated groups in our society social workers would say that we are currently a long way from being a Good Society. The way that society treats social workers, the way that sometimes even social workers treat the minority within the profession who stand up for its principles mirrors the way that our society treats those who are most vulnerable, most dispossessed, most marginalised and disempowered. 

I think we'll know the Good Society when we get there when it gives priority to the rights of children, when it recognises the wisdom of older people inherent in truly supporting their well being and when it properly utilises the abilities of those people who we still write off as 'disabled'. 

While it must begin from individuals the Good Society will have to be truly international. As members of a global profession which recognises that we have a great deal to learn from the magnificent work of colleagues in Brazil, Russia, Hong Kong some of the fastest developing societies in the world and given that social work has greater respect and recognition at the United Nations than it does in England we would set a fundamental challenge for any Good Society about the way that it relates to the rest of the world and the way it treats the rest of the world who want to come here. 

The good society will be based on respect and support for the well being of all its citizens. Utterly democratic, empowering and continually open to challenge and change. 

I suppose that the keenness of our members to develop our own trade union is an exemplar of our approach to the development of a good society. 

It implies ownership, accountability and recognition - there are only 100,000 social workers in the UK so that's some indicator of size. 

It implies pluralism and co-operation - setting up another trade union is not divisive, does not in any way intend to poach members from other unions - aims to bring the tens of thousands of social workers who are not members either of a professional association or trade union into membership. Aims to co-operate with and support all other trade unions with social workers in membership and recommend that social workers join general trade unions working in their sector. 

I think it's quite impertinent of me as a Union General Secretary of 4 days standing  to offer opinions about how we re-make the case for unions as good to society. However I think the views of BASW members are quite compelling. From the messages I get every day I think they want:

Unions which are independent , radical and challenging and unequivocally on their side. 

Unions which have powerful principles and a strong ethical code - rooted in professional values and the best interests of society. 

Unions which are co-operative, flexible, open to new ideas and empowering. 

Unions which are pluralistic, democratic and inclusive ensuring that middle aged , middle class white men in suits and ties are kept firmly in the place that reflects their  minority in the organisation and the profession. 

To all of that I'd add a trade union movement which recognises that social mobility must go way beyond the ability of people from working class backgrounds to move into middle class careers, property and expectations. 

I firmly believe that we must forever have the determination to challenge and change a system where the ownership of capital and the perpetuation of elites will always be there to give backing to our opponents and will provide an inevitable and ineluctable brake and a compromise to our friends.

I hope that helps and I look forward to a good discussion with colleagues."