Big interview: The trade union flag bearer - Doug Nicholls, general secretary, Community and Youth Workers' Union

By Emily Rogers

| 01 September 2004

Doug Nicholls will spend his 30th year of union involvement next year keeping a hawkish eye on the introduction of a new youth work employment structure. Agreed on after months of fraught negotiations between employers and unions, the structure is designed to finally earn the profession the respect it deserves.

But while the battle to agree the new conditions has been a long one, Nicholls, chief executive of the Community and Youth Workers' Union (CYWU), has little time for reflection. He is now preparing for weeks of further negotiation with employers to ensure a fresh dispute about the date a new salary scale comes into effect does not derail the hard-fought deal (YPN, 4-10 August, p2).

When questioned whether an average one-off extra payment of about 1,000 is worth risking youth workers' long-term benefits for, Nicholls is indignant.

"A thousand pounds is a lot of money," he says. "Local authorities are making interest on the money they've had in their coffers since last July.

Most principal youth officers treat youth service budgets as their own and most local authorities don't put enough money into youth service budgets."

He adds: "It's a sad indication of how out of touch employers and principal youth officers are that they are reneging on the national agreement."

Despite his bitterness about the lack of funding for youth work, Nicholls is reluctant to blame the Government, pointing the finger of blame instead in the direction of local authorities for holding back money.

It was local authorities' failure to improve conditions for part-time workers such as himself that encouraged Nicholls to join the union back in 1975. He still blames this failure for the profession's growing problem of recruitment and retention.

During the subsequent 29 years, he says the role of the union has become increasingly demanding. In particular, inspectors from different agencies meas- uring youth work according to different criteria has taken its toll on workers.

Despite this, he is optimistic that 2002's Resourcing Excellent Youth Services document could finally see youth work being placed at the centre of social policy after languishing at its margins.

Given Nicholls' concerns, some observers wonder why the CYWU settled earlier this year for a pay increase of just three per cent after putting itself on the line with its first ever strike.

Nicholls insists the deal struck was worth much more than extra pay.

Key to the agreement is a new grading structure for staff, which will mean them having to fulfil entry requirements for each grade. He dismisses the theory that such requirements could worsen the current recruitment crisis.

"There are more students in training for youth and community work now than ever," he says. "One of the reasons why people are not going in is not because of the qualifications needed, it's because the money isn't good enough and the Government is expecting too much of too few for too little. Using inadequately trained home-grown young people is just creating a disaster."

He points to the relatively high level of serious cases - discipline problems, grievances, stress, mistakes at work - the organisation handles compared with other trade unions to back up the point. "There's no set of ethics for our work and no regulatory body," he adds.

With another possible strike on the horizon, the union will need all the political muscle it can muster, but Nicholls is confident that the CYWU has the strength to succeed.

"Historically, people turn to the effective, specialist protection of a union that understands their work. Big is not beautiful. We can be small but have a big impact."


- The Community and Youth Workers' Union was formed by 10 female workers in the voluntary sector in 1938. It now has 5,000 members

- Doug Nicholls, 48, joined the union in 1975 as a part-time youth worker in Oxford

- He became a full-time youth worker in Coventry in 1982

- He was elected general secretary of the union in 1987.

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