Striking council workers and other public sector employees have a point – enough is enough

Local government has borne the brunt of the coalition’s ‘austerity’ measures.

Local government has borne the brunt of the coalition’s ‘austerity’ measures

When hundreds of thousands of local government and school support workers down tools and strike today, they will do so with one clear aim in mind – to improve on a pay ‘offer’ from the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents their fifth consecutive annual pay cut since 2010.

The J10 strike called by the local government unions – UNISON, GMB and Unite – will be joined by the NUT, PCS and FBU; all with different disputes, but all with a common characteristic and cause – the coalition’s ‘austerity’ agenda and its attack on public spending, public service workers and their pay, conditions of work and pensions.

Nonetheless, it is UNISON’s dispute over the 1 per cent pay offer to over 90 per cent of our members for 2014-2015, and its lifelong impact on their pensions, that has motivated the lowest paid group of public servants (77 per cent of them women, 60 per cent part-time workers) to lose much-needed cash and take to the picket lines.

Local government really has borne the brunt of the coalition’s ‘austerity’ measures. On average, councils will have lost 40 per cent of their funding by 2015, with some poor Labour councils losing even more.

Nonetheless, by the end of 2013 councils had increased their cash reserves by over 20 per cent in real terms from 2010-11 and by £2.6 billion alone between 2012 and 2013. So, whilst our members have struggled to do more with less, with 500,000 lost jobs, pay cuts and all-out war on their conditions of work, councils have been putting millions in the bank.

What has motivated our members to take strike action this year when they were reluctant last year and the one before that? Quite simply that ‘nothing to lose’ feeling.

* Basic pay fallen by 14 per cent since 1997

* Eight of the last 16 annual pay ‘awards’ below inflation

* Pay declined by 18 per cent since the coalition took office

* half a million employees paid below the Living Wage

* The lowest bottom pay rate in the public sector by some distance at £6.45 pence an hour

* NJC car allowances frozen and most users put on lower HMRC rates – leaving many to subsidise their employers for using their own cars for work

* Cuts by most councils to unsocial hours payments, annual leave, sick pay, parental rights, increments and sometimes basic pay too

* Part-time workers – 61 per cent of all employees – suffering drastic cuts to hours, while 20 per cent cover for redundant full-time posts

* 60 per cent of all NJC employees working routine unpaid overtime, just to get the job done

* Reduced pensions because of reduced earnings and pension contributions

The stats are bad. They tell the reason why the lid has finally blown off our members’ patience and they are about to strike. The unions’ claim is for £1.20 an hour for all, to bring the bottom rate of pay to £7.45 pence an hour, closer to the Living Wage of £7.65, and to restore some of the earnings lost by everyone else above that.

Research for UNISON by the New Policy Institute shows that the Treasury would re-coup 55 per cent of the cost of that claim through extra tax and NI take and cuts in benefit expenditure, money which could be re-cycled to councils.

As unions we have requested further negotiations with the current leader and leader-elect of the LGA, which has its annual conference in Bournemouth this week. We stand ready to engage in arbitration as provided for in the collective agreement covering the local government workforce (The NJC agreement).

The LGA has publicly refused to co-operate. We have written to every councillor and MP to seek support. If there is no response, strike action will be escalated in September.

Let’s hope that good sense and just a little recognition of our members’ contribution prevail.

Heather Wakefield is national secretary for local government at UNISON

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