The local government wage round could be one of the toughest to negotiate yet with employers determined to adhere to the chancellor’s 2 per cent ceiling. Will the unions deliver the goods, asks Dave Potter
The three-year pay deal for local government staff is about to come to an end, signalling the start of some intense bartering. And if they’re not careful, local government employers could be about to pay a higher price than just the wage bill.
In July last year, as part of the lead-up to the 2007 comprehensive spending review, chancellor Gordon Brown recommended that all public sector pay deals until 2011 should be based on the government’s 2 per cent inflation target.
But with the most recent retail price index running at 4.2 per cent, public sector union Unison points out that anything less than that would amount to a pay cut.
Unison’s head of local government, Heather Wakefield, says: “The increase in average earnings will be 5.5 per cent by the final quarter of 2007, so the chancellor’s 2 per cent is meaningless to our members. We’ve made it clear that the employers needn’t bother offering that.”
Unison, the T&G and GMB have lodged a claim for 2007-8 for an increase of 5 per cent or £1,000, whichever is greater, plus other allowance increases and the minimum hourly rate (see “The Union’s claim”). Wakefield believes such an inflation-busting rise is justified because of the poor pay deals awarded to local government workers in recent years.
“Under the last three-year deal our members’ pay didn’t keep up with inflation,” Wakefield says, warning that any attempt by employers to push through a deal around 2 per cent would have a devastating effect on front-line morale and on recruitment and retention of high-calibre social care staff.
Unison’s annual membership surveys over the past five years have conveyed the clear message that local government staff feel undervalued and morale is declining.
Jim Gunning, a family support senior practitioner in Gateshead, has been a front-line social worker for nearly 20 years and agrees that things are getting worse.
“Social workers are fed up with the way they’re treated locally and nationally,” he says. “I feel valued by my colleagues and my managers, but I don’t think we’re valued by politicians. The government talks about wanting to have good public services, but social workers are not seen as a priority.”
With his wife in full-time employment and two grown-up children, Gunning considers his own financial position to be comparatively healthy. But he fears for his younger colleagues and believes that, without a significant improvement in pay and conditions, the service provided by current staff will suffer.
“A lot of younger staff are finding the job stressful. The starting salary here is not huge, considering the stresses of the job. We’re not making unreasonable demands. We just want recognition that the job we do is stressful and sometimes dangerous.”
But it’s not just a question of money. There are also the issues of commitment to the job and continuity of care, adds Gunning.
He claims that more staff are switching to agency work, where they are promised they can earn more than in a local government post, with less stress.
Changes to the national minimum wage have compounded recruitment problems. The minimum wage for workers aged 22 or older is £5.35 an hour, while members of Unison on the lowest pay levels earn just 45p an hour more.
Despite this, Local Government Employers (LGE), the body that sets pay levels of local government staff – seems determined to stick to the chancellor’s recommendation, arguing that, without extra funding from the government, their purse strings are tied.
An LGE spokesperson says: “All public sector negotiating bodies have been given strict instructions from the Treasury to offer pay deals no higher than 2 per cent. With the retail price index at 4.2 per cent, we have some tough choices ahead and some hard bargaining will be needed.
“We are looking for a fair deal for the taxpayer and a fair deal for the employee. We are acutely aware of the unions’ feelings and those of the government. We are caught between the two sides.”
The LGE says it is aware of the tight recruitment and retention situation and acknowledges that good public services need good public servants.
The spokesperson adds: “Our aim is to attract good quality staff. We know that to do that we need to re-numerate accordingly. But if the government is not going to give us any extra money, choices will need to be made.”
Not so, say the unions. They say the government should honour its promise to plough at least some of the £3bn of efficiency savings councils have made over the past three years back into front-line services by investing in the staff who are being expected to deliver these better, more efficient services.
“It’s not a choice between the workforce or the services,” Unison’s Wakefield insists. “The workforce is the service.”The Union’s Claim (back to top)
● For any deal to be for one year.
● For 5 per cent or £1,000, whichever is greater.
● For a minimum hourly rate of £6.30.
● For one day’s extra annual leave for all employees.
● For an increase in basic minimum annual leave entitlement to 25 days.
● For a reduction in the standard working week to 35 hours, without loss of pay.
● For an increase in the night shift allowance over three years from time and one-third to time and a half, to time and three-quarters, to double time.
● For an increase in the sleep-in allowance to £60.
What the claim would mean:
● A social worker on a salary of £25,000 in 2007-8 would take home £1,513 a month.
● A 2 per cent rise would increase take-home pay by £28 to £1,541 a month.
● A 5 per cent rise would boost take-home pay by £70 to £1,583 a month.
The first meeting between the trade unions and employers to discuss the claim was on 14 February.
How long will the talks go on for?
In an ideal world, negotiations will be completed and a one-year pay deal agreed by all parties by 1 April. But Unison is predicting that negotiations will be tough and a settlement may take longer.
What does that mean in terms of receiving extra money?
Whatever pay increase is agreed will come into force from 1 April for the 1.4 million council staff represented by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services. If a settlement is not reached until after 1 April, any rise will be backdated.
What happens if the unions and employers can’t agree?
Both sides would prefer to reach a negotiated solution, and could call in arbitration organisation Acas to break a deadlock further down the line. However, a spokesperson for Unison admitted that nothing was being ruled in or out at this stage, and members could be balloted to strike if employers refused to move beyond the 2 per cent mark.
What would going on strike mean?
The unions would agree a day or series of days of strike action. All staff who take part would have their pay docked for the days. Officially there are no other penalties for taking part in a strike.
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