Is it charitable to walk out?

Observations on strikes

This was no ordinary picket line. No beer and sandwiches, just mineral water and bowls of fresh fruit. This was industrial action, charity sector style.

Last month, 20 staff from the Child Poverty Action Group, based in Islington, north London, went on strike over trustees' plans to introduce contracts for new staff that cut sick pay, holidays and rights to compassionate leave. After the failure of negotiations between the T&G union and managers at the conciliation service Acas, 90 per cent of union members voted to strike.

The RSPCA, one of the country's biggest and richest voluntary organisations, could have had similar trouble. Amicus members rejected a strike by only seven votes when the management proposed to cut more than 300 jobs and out-source the call-centre to a private firm. The workers did vote for an overtime ban, however, and a refusal to cover absences.

So is this the beginning of militant action in the charity sector, which has usually dealt with staffing disputes in a more, well, charitable way?

In recent years, the charity sector has done a lot to make itself more professional, especially in tackling the stale stereotype of second-hand clothes shops and cup-cake sales at church fetes. That has necessarily involved charities becoming more corporate and businesslike. And some charities appear to have taken on some of the worst traits of the corporate world.

The poverty group workers feared that the trustees were creating a two-tier workforce, with new staff on poorer conditions. At the RSPCA, staff felt undermined and unappreciated, as the charity tried to outsource their jobs to a private company. Dedication and passion, they suspected, were being discarded for the sake of the balance sheet.

These issues are not new to unions. The unions have been tackling outsourcing, privatisation, streamlining and attacks on workers' conditions for decades. It's just that we do not like to imagine charities ever taking such actions. "We are calling for the RSPCA to get back round the table for meaningful talks" doesn't sound as if it would come from within the voluntary sector, but it did last month.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, could be regarded as the charity world's equivalent of the CBI's Digby Jones. Last month, he warned unions against strike action in the charity sector. "Charities believe in employee consultation and partnership, not confrontation and threats," he told the TUC.

Striking, he told the charity magazine Third Sector, is "not only against the ethos of the sector, it could be very dangerous to the long-term viability of a charity, hitting its reputation and fundraising potential".

Strikes in charities are not that new; they were taking place even 20 years ago. But as they deliver more public services, and are required to compete with private firms for government contracts, charities are being forced into making more cutbacks and streamlining. Currently, only about 15 per cent of the charity workforce is unionised. Now the unions have smelled blood and are keen to recruit more charity sector members. But can charities, as they become more cold and corporate, preserve their distinctive ethos?

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for childhood