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Summer of discontent looms on pay

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Officials at England’s leading public sector trade unions know the definition of being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Negotiating their way around single status agreements designed to ensure fair wages is tough for Unison, the GMB and Unite.
Some see the prospect of a pattern of unhappy compromises as a particularly fertile breeding ground for the kind of radicalism
that New Labour was supposed to have tamed. The local government top brass at the main public sector unions, meanwhile, claim support from members and a recognition that its role is vital in securing workable deals.

Nevertheless, it sees the slow implementation of single status as fanning the flames of anger at general levels of pay towards what could be a summer of discontent. Just under half of English councils have either drawn up or implemented pay and grading reviews to address historic imbalances in pay between men and women doing similar level jobs. Some contain huge bones of contention when fair pay for one set of low-paid women staff comes at a cost to often lowly-paid men.

Last week a second one-day strike by about half of Birmingham City Council’s workforce was only narrowly avoided after bosses
decided there may be room for flexibility in proposals to streamline pay grades into seven bands in the local bid to implement single status (LGC, 28 February). According to the unions, the plan as it stands would see pay cuts for around 14% of the 40,000 workers affected some stung for up to£18,000 a year. While the£18,000-a-year cuts are rare, the percentage of losers is typical of the national picture.

As each council is responsible for funding its new arrangements, it is no surprise that pay packet joy for some comes at the misery of others. Added to the mix of problems for union bargainers is the cost for councils of compensating staff for previous unfair pay, and transitional arrangements to ease them into their new settlements. All of which will have to be paid for by the same local authorities, who could chose to shed jobs to fund the obligations. For good measure, there is also the prospect that unions could face litigation if their back-pay packages turn out to be unfair.

Leading equal pay solicitor Stefan Cross is no friend of the trade unions, even though he has won thousands of pounds in compensation for thousands of lowly-paid people.

Individual cases fought by his firm are seen as a threat to the unions’ ability to agree compensation for whole swathes of members. Mr Cross a former Labour Newcastle City councillor was quick to criticise the way single status has been implemented, even if the result has been millions of pounds worth of work for his business.

“At the moment, it’s a recipe for litigation for years to come,” he said. “This is a new wrapper for the same old sweet.”

He said that the decision not to impose national equal pay structures, as was done with the health service, had created wide-ranging inequalities between staff at neighbouring councils doing the same jobs. “There’s no correlation across authorities on the bands or grades. It means the pay is totally chaotic,” Mr Cross said.

He accused the unions of simply “rubber-stamping” some of the earliest deals in a bid to get the settlement process moving, when
later seemingly more favourable deals are being contested elsewhere.

In most parts of the country, the public sector unions are working together to negotiate deals but Leeds is one current exception. In January, an estimated 7,000 GMB members voted to turn down the city council’s proposed single status pay deals, which other unions had accepted.

Yorkshire & North Derbyshire regional organiser Bill Chard said while it was possible that GMB members voted as they did because they were worst affected by the offer, it was widely believed that the other unions had done less to explain the implications of the proposal. “A lot of people in the refuse and street cleaning area are saying they want to come over to us now,” he said.

The branch demonstrated outside Leeds Civic Centre last month, and is due to hold more discussions on future action next week. At Unison, the country’s largest public sector union, local government national secretary Heather Wakefield is adamant that the level of strife witnessed in Birmingham is not the shape of things to come for the rest of the country. “What we want is negotiated settlements, and what we’ll be doing is looking to litigation to achieve our goals, she said.

She pointed to a successful industrial tribunal involving bonus entitlements for 250 cleaners, school cooks and admin workers at Coventry City Council as an example of the union’s achievements on the legal path.

However, one Unison branch secretary told LGC there were grassroots concerns among union members that senior officials were too willing to agree settlements that cost some members money.

He said: “People on the national executive have been openly critical about branches being pushed into deals. In 1997 it was obvious that extra funding was going to be needed, and the big mistake has been not confronting this as a national issue.

“There’s a feeling among many that although we’re contributors to the Labour Party as a union, the Labour government is biting the hand that feeds it in terms of the way some workers are being treated. We should bring branches together to secure proper funding, and prepare for a national campaign.”

It was his belief that a free vote among union members would find a majority in favour of disaffiliating with Labour.

Another senior union official with an insight on Unison said that the true level of resentment had yet to surface. “There are branches and activists linking together,” he said. “I get a strong sense from reading the reports that it’s beginning to be a movement within [Unison’s] national executive council, and it’s getting to the point where there’s a slate running against [general secretary] Dave Prentis.” Labour MP Lynne Jones is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group. While she does not see the implementation of single status as a party political issue, the member for Selly Oak in Birmingham raises fears about how fair the city is being with its settlement.

“They have come up with a below-inflation council tax increase (1.9%), when they’ve had a 4.6% grant from the government,” she said. “I wonder if they have done everything they could to reduce the losses.” Union officials have long argued that the city’s proposals have mixed cost-cutting with the implementation of single status.

Unite national officer Peter Allenson believes that pattern is repeated across the country. “A number of authorities seem to be using their pay and grading reviews to deal with other issues they felt they couldn’t previously deal with. When you ballot members on pay, they will well remember the things they feel aggrieved about over the last few years and use that as a stick to beat employers,” he said.

“This year, there is a real prospect we might be facing a summer of discontent.”

And he is not alone in that opinion. Both Unison’s Heather Wakefield and GMB national secretary Brian Strutton regard single status wrangling as just some of the kindling in a bigger tinderbox.

In around two weeks’ time, Local Government Employers are expected to announce their reaction to January’s six percent pay demand from the unions: it will be a good indication of how hot any summer of discontent could get.

Equal pay updates

  • Nottinghamshire CC Agreement due to come into effect on 1 April, includes six years’ back-pay and five years’ transition

  • South Tyneside MBC Deal rejected

  • Blackburn with Darwen BC Discussions ongoing

  • Cardiff Council Made back-pay offer to 3,000 low-paid female staff in February

  • Darlington BC Compensation deal has been ruled out

  • Leeds City Council GMB staff reject equal pay proposals, other unions accept them, discussions continue

  • Mansfield DC Back-pay breakthrough

  • Birmingham City Council Second one-day strike called off after two weeks of talks agreed

  • East Lothian Council Just balloted on possible industrial action over conditions included in equal pay proposals

  • Argyll & Bute Council Industrial action prompts improved equal pay package

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