The social workers of BC can learn something from the nurses and doctors of the province and form their own professional union. This would have three major benefits for social workers and the public.
First, improved working conditions, wages, and benefits which in turn would help organizations recruit and fill shortages. This new union could set minimum education and experience qualifications for various social work positions to ensure everyone entering the field has a certain set of education, skills, knowledge, and expertise.
Second, a common voice to advocate for social justice and social work issues and the profession at-large which in turn would bring to light systemic problems and issues including in child protection and foster care and special needs and their potential solutions and interventions. Social workers employed in non-unionized environments would no longer be silenced and can bring these types of issues forward because they would have the protection of a strong powerful collective union to support them.
Third, representation to resolve public disputes and grievances which in turn would result in a regular review of professional practice standards and guidelines. A common social work union could also mandate that all social workers in the province have professional legal liability insurance which would benefit all parties involved including employers and the public.
So what is the current situation in BC? Social workers have a licensing body and college but membership is voluntary for most practicing social works. In addition, social workers have a professional association but membership is voluntary again.
So what problems has this led to? This has led to a lack of standards for recruitment putting children and families at risk, as well as horrible underfunding and neglect of social work services in the province by every level of government, and a divided profession unable to advocate and advance for itself and the general public.
For example, the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) hires people to fill so called “Social Program Officer” positions in child protection even if they don’t have any education or training in social work and yet these workers are allowed to call themselves social workers to my knowledge and their not even bound by the regulations and practice standards of the BC College of Social Workers. It really sets a dangerous precedent considering social workers work with some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the province.
So who would join this new “British Columbia Social Worker’s Union (BCSWU)?” Below are ten (10) groups of people in the social work employment sector that the profession can organize around.
Aboriginal Social Workers (First Nations Child Protection and Foster Care and Health and Social Services)
Academic Social Workers (Professors, Instructors, School Counsellors, Social Planners, Social Policy Makers)
Clinical Social Workers (Health Authorities, Child and Youth Mental Health)
Community Social Workers (Non-Profits)
Federal Social Workers (Veterans Affairs, Department of Defence)
Judicial Social Workers (Youth and Adult Probation Officers and Corrections Staff that have a social work background)
Ministry Social Workers (MCFD)
Management Social Workers (Managers and Leaders, Clinical Coordinators, Team Leaders, and Executive Directors)
Private Social Workers (Private Practice)
Social Service Workers (People with a two year social service worker diploma but working in a social work related position)
So has this been done before? Yes, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) which represents social workers all over England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has formed a social workers union. Unfortunately, this is also voluntary.
There is also movement in British Columbia for mandatory registration with the BC College of Social Workers. For example, all social workers employed by health authorities in the province must be licensed with the college. Unfortunately, the BC government has not mandated social workers in MCFD to do the same for some unknown reason.
In general, social work as a profession is moving towards increased regulation and standards. For example, members of the college must pass a social work licensing exam now and must complete a number of hours of continuing professional education to maintain their membership. These requirements are bringing social work in line with other professions such as medicine and nursing.
So what’s the bottom line?
It’s time for BC to have a social worker’s union. This would lead to many benefits including better working conditions, increased social justice advocacy, and representation for employees. Employers may also benefit from sectoral bargaining as they won’t have to negotiate lengthy and costly collective agreements with hundreds of organizations and unions around the province.
A provincial social work union would strengthen the profession by lending more legitimacy and credibility and providing a strong collective voice to speak on behalf of social workers throughout BC.
Social workers work to protect and help and assist some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people. It’s time for the public and the province and the profession itself to start looking after the best interests of social workers too.
Alex Sangha is an award winning social worker and author based in Surrey, B.C. His social discussion book, Catalyst, was a Finalist in the Current Events and Social Change category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for 2014. For more information on Alex check out his author blog at http://alexsangha.com