Friday, November 21, 2014

Local government pay - is there an alternative to national pay bargaining?

As I observed yesterday, the Special Conference (which informed sources in the Euston Road now confidently predict) will consider how we should go about getting a decent pay increase for local government workers.

Some will understandably question the very future of national bargaining (particularly those in the authority intending to break away from national bargaining who, having prematurely implemented the 1% pay offer, are now seeking to claw back from those staff who stand to get less in 2014/15 from the pay settlement than they received under the previous offer against which national strike action was taken!)

There are other means to try to improve the living standards of local government workers other than simply by pursuing national pay claims, but none of these alone are a credible alternative.

Ever since the adoption of the Green Book in 1997 we have had a degree of local autonomy in relation to pay and grading, and to many conditions of service. This autonomy is – in circumstances of declining organisation and limited confidence – something which has generally been taken advantage of by employers. There is, however, nothing in principle to prevent the trade unions in any particular local authority proposing (for example) that the points to grades relationship in their Council be varied by giving everyone an extra increment (or more).

Such a local claim would no more break away from national pay bargaining than have the various measures introduced by particular local authorities (some of whom have held back incremental progression in the past, arguing that this did not breach Part Two of the Green Book).

However, the fact that something is procedurally possible does not mean that it would be well-advised. For each local authority where we might successfully fight for such a local “uplift” within the framework of the Green Book there will be many more where individual authorities might thereby be tempted to propose a local “downshift” which the unions might struggle to resist.

At a “higher” level of the bargaining framework, we know that there is some pressure on the employers’ side to consider Regional pay bargaining. The increasing divergence on the trade union side between the local leadership in the North West (and Greater London) and other Regions could clearly point in a similar direction.

However, the unevenness of the strength of the trade unions is as great within Regions as it is between them. Even in the short term, any trade union acquiescence to fractures in national pay bargaining would be a threat to more of our members than those for whom they might be an opportunity.

With apologies to our friends in the North, trade unionists in Greater London do have an opportunity which does not exist elsewhere, because of the way in which “London Weighting” was incorporated into the Outer and Inner London pay spines in 2000. It would be entirely within the framework of national pay bargaining for the trade unions to make a claim to increase the differentials between these and the national pay spine. In spite of the miserable outcome of the London Weighting dispute of a decade ago, the changed political balance of our London employers means that our ability to take effective action is now better aligned to those authorities we would most need to influence in order to achieve change at a Regional level.

Whether we should or should not do this is a question which now needs to be considered within Greater London – but overall, I think we need to accept that, from the point of view of local government workers, our priority has to be to find a way to make national pay bargaining deliver for our members in future.

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