At the end of next week, Unison, TGWU and GMB members are
expected to hold a second national strike in support of their 6 per
cent pay claim. The local government employers have offered 3 per
cent, backdated to April. At the time of writing neither side was
contemplating compromise, despite the involvement of the
conciliation service Acas.
On the day of the strikes, the right-wing press may choose to
portray lazy, greedy, inefficient public sector workers having an
unearned day off at the nation’s expense. But the strikers would
contend that taking industrial action is not an easy thing to do.
Hard-won working relationships within teams can be damaged, pay is
cut, people who need services are let down, systems are thrown into
turmoil. Striking staff also run the risk of alienating and
infuriating the public.
So why are people striking now? These are the first national
strikes in local government for 23 years – an era of financial
prudence for councils. What has prompted the action? And if there
is a new mood of militancy, what are the implications for staff and
Several factors have converged in the past few years.
Significantly, union leaders argue that there is a growing sense of
desperation and disappointment among their members. During the 18
years of Conservative rule public services were squeezed, but at
least staff held out hope that if Labour were returned to power
they would receive a more sympathetic hearing. Now, with the Blair
administration five years old, they perceive the long-awaited
Labour government as an oncoming train rather than the end of the
Job pressures have also been increasing while perceived rewards
have been decreasing. A recent poll by trade union Unison found
that nearly one-third of local government workers were doing
substantial unpaid overtime to keep up with their workloads. In
social care particularly, target and audit overload have been
compounded by increasingly stressful workloads, with the result
that many staff feel they can no longer give more for less. Union
leaders argue that inspections, reviews and ratings continue to
pile blame on staff who feel they are doing their utmost to provide
good services in cash-starved, under-staffed departments.
Home care staff are a case in point. The government wants more
people to be supported to live at home rather than in residential
care, but this will involve home carers providing much higher
levels of personal and nursing care than before. Now these staff –
mainly low paid, part time and female – feel aggrieved that their
status and pay have lagged behind the change in their
responsibility (see panel, right).
Serving the community through local government has often been
viewed as a vocation rather than a financially-based career
decision, but the current pay dispute is evidence that attitudes
are changing. The high cost of living, lack of affordable rented
accommodation and the over-heated housing market render a job in
local government – and particularly in social care – unattractive.
Unison national officer for local government Sandra Howell points
to a recent poll which found 88 per cent of social workers, 89 per
cent of residential care workers and 85 per cent of home care
workers wanting their union to act on pay. For any union those
statistics would be difficult to ignore.
Howell also points out that local government looks shabbily
treated compared with other public sector services. While other
workers, notably nurses and teachers, have had significant pay
increases and other perks from the government, she says pay in
local government has been steadily losing ground for 20 years.
“No-one is keen to pit public workers against each other – and
no-one begrudges nurses and teachers their pay, they deserve it,”
Howell says. But she admits the disparity does generate
Local government also fares badly against the private sector,
according to Unison. Their figures suggest the national average
wage is about £19,000 a year but the average local government
wage is about £14,000. Front-line local government workers
often struggle to run a car, let alone buy a home. Many earn so
little they are in receipt of top-up benefits.
Employers, on the other hand, argue that a 3 per cent rise is
fair and just, on a par with other pay rises across public services
and, crucially, is affordable. Local government body the Employers’
Organisation says the union’s demands for a 6 per cent rise or a
flat rate increase of £1,750, whichever is the greater, would
add at least £80 to the average household’s council tax bill
or mean the loss of 85,000 jobs, whereas the 3 per cent rise on
offer would put no extra pressure on local taxpayers.
Employers also point out that 3 per cent is nearly three times
the rate of inflation and reject the unions’ view that local
government is falling behind national pay rates, citing private
sector workers who earn significantly less and whose employment
conditions are not as favourable. And, since the turnout for the
vote on industrial action was about 40 per cent, 56 per cent of
whom voted in favour, they could conclude that the strike was not
supported by most of the workforce.
In fact, the unions’ proposed flat rate increase is a far
greater challenge to employers than the headline 6 per cent demand
because so many council staff are on such low wages – Unison
estimates that 20 per cent earn less than £5 an hour. A simple
percentage-based increase merely amplifies the pay divide between
high and low earners. Howell says: “Even 6 per cent of nothing is
nothing.” A rise of £1,750, on the other hand, represents a
14.5 per cent increase for someone on a salary of £12,000 and
is substantially more than a 6 per cent rise for anyone earning
less than £30,000. Given that an estimated three-quarters of
local government staff are women – many of them part time and on
low incomes – this could go a long way to redress traditional pay
Some service users will suffer as a result of the action, but
many staff were given special dispensations to continue providing
essential services so that vulnerable people received their service
as usual despite the industrial action. And there is now a move by
the unions to focus on targeted action after the next national
stoppage on 14 August in an attempt to hit councils’
revenue-raising ability rather than having an ever-greater impact
on the public.
But even if the two sides do come to an arrangement this time,
central and local government may have to bite the bullet and look
hard at pay. Once roused, the anger of these workers may prove
difficult to subdue.
Living on £5.50 an hour
TGWU member Pat Johnston is a personal support worker for older
people for Cambridgeshire County Council. She has been doing the
job for 22 years and her basic pay is about £5.50 an hour.
She says: “I voted for the strike, and I was on the picket line
during my downtime that day. I think we just want people to be
aware of the difficulties that there are.
“A lot of people, even with two incomes, cannot support a
mortgage. I’m one of the lucky ones – 27 years ago I got a council
house. Houses in Cambridge cost £250,000-500,000 and you can’t
rent for less than about £650 a month. Who can afford
“We don’t have a car, although now it is required for all
personal support workers because you have to be travelling all over
the county all day.
“Up to a point the local authority bosses have their hands tied,
but people need to realise that to have a service, they’ve got to
pay for it.”