Council workers receive the lowest pay in the public sector, and have faced an 18% decline in pay over the last eight years, with below inflation pay rises and three years with no increase at all.
Workers have faced some of the worst cuts in services, with some councils having seen 30% cuts since 2010, while the cost of services are increasing due to increase in cost of elderly care and services to support the vulnerable being in greater demand.
Unions like Unison and GMB should be taking a stand against another year of pay cuts planned by local government employers.
The Local Government Association, the employers’ body, has so far failed to even make an offer in response to the unions’ joint claim for a flat rate increase of at least £1.20 per hour. So, at last, unions have announced a dispute, and this has brought the LGA back to the negotiating table, agreeing to meet unions on 20 March (instead of 1 May as planned).
But, as with last year, this feels like too little, too late.
Last year, union members reluctantly accepted the miserable 1% offer, but this was only paid in September (five months later than the 1 April date for our annual pay award). The North West, London, and Scotland regions of Unison voted to oppose the deal and to strike, but the majority of union members voted to accept.
By allowing the employers, year after year, to make an offer at the eleventh hour, or, as with last year, to propose action after the pay rise was actually due, risks members accepting whatever is offered because they have no choice.
A low-paid worker on not much more than minimum wage needs the pay rise on 1 April, and even if the employer offers a pittance, to many that money in your hand now is the difference between buying your children shoes this term or next.
Unions need to realise that action needs to be taken months before the pay offer date, not talking up action in the final month.
So how do we get out of this impasse?
Firstly, the unions should start a serious campaign now for targeted industrial action with proper strike pay from day one. If the employers are to be pushed into making an offer better than 1%, they need to know the plan is more creative than one day of action, and that action could actually hit the running of council services like street cleaning, IT services, or parking inspection. A week-long action by parking inspectors where they refused to issue fines would be hugely popular with the public and would hit the council’s finances.
Secondly union members and the employers need to know that the unions mean business. Unions, at branch and national levels, need war chests to finance sustained action. Having strike funds lets workers know the union will support them in taking action, and shows the employers the unions are in the fight to win. The Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) strike at the University of London, which used strike pay to finance 48-hour strikes, shows how strike funds can be effective on a local level.
Finally, whatever happens this year, next year’s claim and strategy need to be planned to deliver action well before the pay rise is due.
A dispute needs to be in place in the Autumn, and action planned in the Winter, using creative targeted action as well as all-out action, and with a strike fund from the start.