Single status: time to level up

Submitted by AWL on 7 March, 2008 - 8:18 Author: Frank Mitchell

Recently there have been a number of strikes and protests in local government in response to settlements of Single Status Agreements.

The most significant was a one-day strike in Birmingham which has brought the local authority back to the negotiating table. The industrial action is now officially suspended as talks progress. Three days of strike action in Argyll and Bute also led to new negotiations and a commitment to a collective agreement rather than the imposition without formal consultation of a deal.

Numerous “final deadlines” have now passed since Single Status Agreements were first rolled out ten years ago. The aim of the agreements was to settle the historic inequalities in pay suffered mainly by low paid women workers and set up a new system that would guarantee “equal pay” in the future. But the current situation is now a complete mess.

Some councils and unions have made deals seemingly to their mutual satisfaction. But even here the deals are at risk of unravelling. “No win, no fee” solicitors are taking out individual grievances for women workers who think they have been sold short in the collective agreements. And it’s not just the employers who are facing claims (thousands of claims) for unequal treatment, the unions are too.

As the principle being challenged in court is that of the right of a union to make a collective agreement with the support of their members, the court cases have been posed as a threat to “trade unionism as we know it”. Of course such deals inevitably require compromises. There will always be winners when a union tries to get the best deal possible in the circumstances. We would often criticise such deals and argue that there is more than can be gained if workers are mobilised into more serious action etc. Nonetheless the principle that unions seek to deliver the best collective agreement stands as one of the historic benefits of being unionised. When that principle breaks down there is the threat of sectionalism, with workers pitted against workers. And then the strongest sections will win deals to the detriment of others.

Ironically perhaps, it is weakness in the collective power of the union that explain the need for SSAs in the first place. In the past some sections, particularly male manual workers, were able to use their industrial muscle to win better pay and terms and conditions. More poorly organised women workers fell behind or were never able to fight alone.

Unfortunately some of the current agreements will mean significant wage cuts for male workers from employers seeking to level wages down to that of their female counterparts. It’s their idea of equality. The alternative of “levelling up” is said to be too costly and would result in cuts in services or redundancies. Unions have felt the need to balance competing demands whilst not being seen as “bankrupt” local authorities.

The no win/no fee solicitors on the other hand pursue individual or small groups of claims with the sole purpose of getting as much money as possible with no responsibility for the costs.

Because the unions have allowed SSA negotiations to go ahead authority by authority, rather than through a national deal, means that what has been decided as a “fair” wage in one council can be very different just a few miles away in the next borough. There has been a lack of central support from the unions to support local negotiators, no up to date information on the deals being made, not attempts to set benchmarks for agreements outside of Scotland. There have been attempts by council leaders to claw money back from the deals, through subsequent changes in terms and conditions — e.g. cutting unsocial hours payments and increasing productivity.

All of this threatens a breakdown in national terms and conditions and pay bargaining. As each council asserts its new independent powers to set local rates of pay there is being created the basis for new and enduring differentials between workers supposedly on the same grade across the country. And if, for instance, care workers in one borough are “cheaper” than in another the their service will be more competitive and sellable to another borough. A market in council services is now being created.

The NHS’s pay reform, Agenda for Change, to achieve equal pay was centrally funded. The costs of SSAs are not. They are expected to be met within current council budgets with little help from national government. The total cost is projected at being between £3-5 billion pounds — a huge amount but a fraction of the cost of bailing out Northern Rock or the war in Iraq.

Because of the threat of further legal action the unions have banned, under legal advice, any discussion of SSAs and equal pay from public forums, including union conferences! This has been the situation for the last few years and seems likely to continue.

Workers’ Liberty supporters in UNISON have nevertheless put forward motions for local government conference to try and open up the debate calling on the union to:

• Publish a national report with details on the costs and arrangements on single status for each local authority so that our members and branches can have a national picture.

• On this basis compile a benchmark agreement that incorporates all the best outcomes, as a guide for our local negotiators and as evidence to present to local employers in arguing for a levelling up of all outstanding agreements.

• Coordinate a dispute with employers over pay and single status.

• Demand the government fully fund the 6% pay claim and the costs of single status

The cost of not doing these things will be a breakdown in national pay, terms and conditions and — equally importantly — levels of service and provision. That will mean further rounds of industrial action in defence of local deals and protection of national agreements. In that situation sectional interests are likely to reassert themselves, and new inequalities to be created.

The unity between the unions seen in Birmingham and elsewhere now need to be replicated nationally and national strike action taken to force central government to pay for a full settlement and correct the historic injustice that sees 75% of women in local government still without an equal pay settlement.

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