Valentine's Day pay talks for local government staff saw the two sides falling out over the trade unions' claim for a flat increase of£1,000 for all staff. The employers claimed their mandate from 181 councils was for no more than 3%, with no enthusiasm for 'bottom loading' for the lowest paid from a flat-rate deal. Even 3% would lead to a cut in services and jobs.
At the same time, ministers tell local government we have never had it so good: a 7% increase in 2001/02; a 14% rise over the last four years, compared to cuts of 7% between 1993 and 1997; some increase in capital investment; and£100m for neighbourhood renewal. But no extra for staff, it seems.
The trade unions were less than impressed by the employers' response. The expectations of Unison's 800,000 local government members are shaped in part by government spin. But it is not easy to reconcile the government's message on finance with a 3% pay offer which would give our lowest paid members a mere£5.12 extra per week - an hourly rate of£4.80.
Meanwhile, NHS staff outside the pay review bodies will get at least 3.7% and our members in Scotland have fought hard for a deal which would deliver 16.4% for the lowest paid over the next four years. Cleaning and sales staff in Boots, Tesco and Sainsbury's are hitting targets way above£5 an hour.
Council coffers may have benefited from a 14% rise over the last four years. But during the same period, council staff's pay fell behind the rest of the economy.
Average earnings rose by over 17% between 1997 and 2000 while our members faced a much lower 12% increase. Women working as care assistants, school meals workers, classroom assistants and nursery nurses lost pay between 1995 and 1999, with cash increases trailing the cumulative effect of pay rises.
Three-quarters of councils have reported recruitment and retention problems this year. Home care staff, care assistants, accountants and IT workers are not waiting for this year's offer but are already voting on pay with their feet.
Those remaining are being asked to do more for less and continuously improve their performance, while equal pay and single status are put on the back burner due to lack of funds. The government and councils need to think hard about the message staff are receiving on pay.
It is staff who deliver on regeneration, social inclusion and improved service delivery.
And local government pay has a major impact on the health of local economies which the government rightly wants to bolster and where the council is usually the largest employer.
-Malcolm Wing, head of local government, Unison.