Since the 1980s social workers and social care workers have been regular targets for Tory attacks. While their statutory powers in areas such as child protection mean that they can sometimes be experienced as oppressive by their working class clients, it is still the case that the majority of social workers want to work in anti-oppressive ways.
Their unwillingness to demonise people on benefits and disabled clients as “scroungers” was the trigger two years ago for Michael Gove’s attacks on social work education as being “too idealistic” with students being over-influenced by “theories of society” — in other words, refusing to blame individuals for being poor or disabled. Over two days in April around 450 front-line social workers, students, academics and service users from across the UK met at the tenth annual conference of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) to challenge these myths of “dependency”.
A former psychiatric nurse spoke of his own struggles with mental health problems and of the fantastic support he had received from Glasgow Association for Mental Health (GAMH). Disgracefully, GAMH is now facing cuts of up to 40 percent as a result of a £29 million cuts package being imposed by the Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council.
A key theme of the conference was the need for workers and service users to unite to challenge these cuts and defend all services. This was reinforced by the involvement of leading Unison activists from around the country and by a large collection for the Glasgow Homelessness Service strikers, some of whom also addressed the conference.
During the 1990s anti-racist practice (ARP) was a core element of the social work curriculum, based on recognising the ways in which racism marred the health and well-being of people from black and minority ethnic communities. Despite a significant rise in both Islamophobia and anti-Roma racism in recent years, anti-racist practice has largely fallen off the social work agenda.
In part, this is a reflection of a New Labour view of social work as essentially a technical occupation concerned primarily with meeting targets and performance indicators rather than engaging with “political” issues such as racism, poverty and inequality. In a powerful plenary session, Marcela Adamova from the organisation Roma Lav, Amal Azzudin of the Glasgow Girls (who successfully campaigned against the deportation of a school friend) and Laura Penketh, co-editor of a recent book on ARP, showed why we need to put anti-racism back at the heart of social work education and practice.
Neoliberal capitalism is a global system and one striking feature of the growth of SWAN over the past decade has been the extent to which its ideas have resonated with workers across the globe. In a powerful address, academic and activist Gerry Mooney highlighted the links between the astonishing social movement around the independence referendum in Scotland last September, driven not by nationalism but by opposition to austerity, and similar struggles in Greece and Spain today.
These themes were echoed in an international session involving social workers from Greece, members of Syriza who are struggling to maintain even the most basic services in the face of austerity. From the US, lecturer Dawn Belkin described the activities of the Boston Liberation Health Group, social workers engaged in a wide range of struggles from campaigns against homelessness to involvement in Black Lives Matter.
From Spain, Ana Lima Fernandez, president of the Consejo General del Trabajo Social (General Council on Social Work) and a founder of the Orange Tide Movement spoke of how social workers there are engaged in protests alongside service users around issues such as homelessness and food poverty. And in an expression of international solidarity with the people of Palestine, SWAN passed a motion calling on the International Federation of Social Workers to withdraw its invitation to six Israeli social workers to present at its European Conference in Edinburgh later this year.