This year's local government pay claim (for 2013-14) is, in part, for a "substantial flat rate increase" - but what does that mean?
Officers asked to explain, as at the recent UNISON Regional Local Government Committee in Greater London cannot answer - and that's not ducking and diving on their part, but properly observing the democratic legitimacy of the lay Committee which determined this form of words.
That doesn't mean that those of us in line to receive whatever pay award is eventually negotiated ought not to consider what we think these words mean - if we don't then how are we to judge whatever offer we are made?
I would like to suggest a test we should put to whatever offer the employers side eventually make (having thus far done no more than dangle the possibility of (a very small) carrot, which has even less substance than our claim.
A "substantial" flat rate pay award needs to be sufficient to halt the decline in living standards for a large majority of our members (bearing in mind that the real terms pay of a worker on the same pay point since 2009 has fallen by a sixth).
With Retail Price Index inflation at 3.2% (http://www.ons.gov.uk:80/ons/rel/cpi/consumer-price-indices/october-2012/index.html) that's the percentage increase required by workers to halt (not reverse or make up for) the decline in our standard of living.
Since we are asking for a flat rate increase (in a legitimate attempt to redistribute in favour of the lowest paid) we need to set (even if only in our own heads) a benchmark grade to which this 3.2% applies, so that we can judge an offer from the employers.
If we don't think now about what we think "substantial" ought to mean - in our own pay claim - we have no basis upon which reasonably to judge any offer which may be made - and that would be dangerous.
If we have this discussion only in private we shall fail to mobilise our members, rendering the discussion pointless.
If we want to ensure that workers up to SCP28 (outside London) don't suffer a further fall in living standards we need £760 a year - but that would mean all those above that point (and at lower points on the London pay spines) would continue to lose in real terms.
If we pitch this at the level at which we were happy to see members pay more for their pensions (SCP49) we need an increase of £1,332 a year.
Looking at these figures it's fairly clear that any pay offer below £1,000 a year flat rate can't reasonably be described as "substantial". This sum would sustain the living standards of workers up to SCP37 (outside Greater London), although with those above that rate still seeing a continuing fall in real income.
This is, of course, a very low benchmark by which to judge a pay offer - it wouldn't bring even those at the bottom of the pay spine back to the spending power they had in 2009.
This approach to working ought what ought to be meant by "substantial" also fails to address the question (to which I will return) of the "strings" which may be attached to any offer.
Any offer which was linked, for example, to detrimental changes in well-established sick pay arrangements (which set a modest civilised standard for other decent employers) we would be being asked to collude in redistribution away from those who are unwell.
No flat rate payment, however substantial, could justify that (and I would love to see the equality impact assessment which would justify such an assault upon those most vulnerable).
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