Unison’s Heather Wakefield on the local government pay claim

This year promises to be a busy one for Unison’s head of local government, Heather Wakefield. The coming months will see the first local government pay negotiations for three years, the deadline for conducting equal pay reviews and the ongoing pensions wrangle.

In launching the 2007-8 local government pay claim last week union leaders made it clear their members were in combative mood.

Part of the problem is that the last deal included a requirement that local authorities complete single status reviews, which are designed to correct historical gender pay inequalities, by April this year.

Wakefield says councils are still “a long way from that”. She predicts only one-third of councils will have completed their reviews on time and says 10 per cent of councils have done nothing at all.

Single status was first agreed 10 years ago and Wakefield points out that the Equal Pay Act is 32 years old, so “there’s no excuse at all for councils not having done this thing”.

Councils have identified cost as the main barrier to implementation and Wakefield admits “a lot of them are stretched for cash”.

But she says some have “quite healthy reserves” and although Unison would prefer to negotiate sustainable pay and conditions reviews with councils it will not shy away from taking legal action against those that drag their heels. The union is identifying the authorities and cases it will take to court.

And if the reviews are properly funded and implemented social care staff, such as care assistants and home care workers, whose skills and knowledge have traditionally been undervalued, should “stand to gain significantly”, argues Wakefield. But she warns that pay rises in some areas could be undermined by authorities trying to withdraw their unsocial hours payments, which particularly benefit social care workers.

British Union of Social Work Employees general secretary Steve Anslow suggested last week that social care workers would get a better deal on issues such as pay by joining a specialised social care union.

Unsurprisingly, Wakefield says it makes no sense for social care workers to go off on their own when everyone is talking about joint working between different disciplines.

“All the evidence shows that people are far better off when they are part of collective agreements and collective bargaining.”

Wakefield believes social care does not have the profile or national voice of jobs like nursing because it is seen as less professional by the public. In the past, social care was often seen as a bit of cooking and cleaning, she argues.

Wakefield also argues that local government workers in general have become the poor relations of the public sector. While the government has decided that the police, armed forces, NHS, civil service and teachers can retire at 60 and have their pensions benefits protected, it is proposed that local government workers continue to work until 65 or receive a smaller pension.

Another part of the problem, Wakefield says, is the government’s financial relationship with local government which means it can restrict how much councils have to spend but then wash its hands of the resultant low pay.

All of which means that, as union leaders made clear last week, if local government employers and the government do not give some ground they had better prepare themselves for a “punch-up”. CC

The Wakefield trinity

Favourite music: Handel and Amy Winehouse. I’ve seen Amy Winehouse live three times. I haven’t seen Handel live.

Most admire: Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus in the US sparking the 1960s civil rights movement.

Who would you like to play you in a film of your life?: Helen Mirren.

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