On Thursday 21 February, we will find out if some 450 members of the TGWU/Unite have voted in favour of national strike action, an event which would be a first in Shelter's 41-year history.
They are faced with a package of cuts which will result in all 800+ staff working two and a half extra hours per week (unpaid) and without the current incremental pay scale which they are currently entitled to (worth £2k-£3k on top of starting salaries).
On top of this, scores of frontline advice and support staff are to be made redundant and “redeployed” into lower-paid jobs in a "new operating model", which will effectively mean that they are doing exactly the same jobs as they were before but for nearly £3000 per year less. For these staff the total paycut will be nearly £5k per year, on top of below-inflation pay increases for the last two years and the 07/08 pay claim talks stalled at 2.75%.
The drive to impose these “organisational changes” on resistant staff has led Shelter management to stoop to the most verminous of tactics. Staff have been issued with a "contract variation memo" and told to sign it or have their contracts of employment terminated with an offer of re-engagement.
These bullying tactics have led to hundreds of new workers joining the union, and a definite awakening to some of the ideas of class struggle among the staff.
The result of the ballot will tell us whether the fight in Shelter will continue, and the whole of the voluntary sector, workers and bosses, will have their eye on what happens next.
The New Labour government continues to pursue its agenda of privatisation by contracting out social care and legal aid services to the private and "third" sectors - Shelter's management want to emulate the reviled Capita (they even went to one of Capita's offices on a fact-finding mission last year) by increasing their share of legal aid contracts. But Capita provide a notoriously awful service with low paid, poorly trained staff giving bad advice while the company's shareholders rake in the profits.
Shelter's senior management have refused to deny that they have awarded themselves (with the help of Shelter's Board of Directors) huge hikes in pay at the beginning of 2007, just a few months before they announced these devastating cuts to staff pay and conditions.
This dispute may mark an important change in the voluntary sector. If workers in Shelter win, we may see more voluntary sector workers in other charities and NGOs taking on their employers to try and halt the increasing corporatisation of the sector and the onset of self-serving managerialism.
If they lose, it may give the green light to the management of other charities to push through similar changes.
Either way, we could see the voluntary sector becoming a more central frontier in the class struggle - if the battle is won, the victory will be important for all workers.
If the battle is lost, the political dead end that is charity will become yet more futile.
Shelter is an organisation that supposedly campaigns against homelessness and bad housing by providing advice on the ground and by lobbying the government to make policy changes. The irony here is that Shelter management, by attacking their staff in this way, are contributing to the same economic process that creates homelessness and bad housing in the first place.
As socialists, we must first and foremost support the workers at Shelter in fighting off this most despicable of attacks and fight against the Thatcherisation of the not-for-profit sector.
But we must also seek to involve more of these workers in "big politics", the kind of politics that seeks to alleviate social ills like homelessness by smashing their root cause - capitalism.
• For more information and a campaign leaflet see www.workersliberty.org