Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Monday, July 15, 2019

GMB forced to call strike action in Brighton and Hove - who is responsible?

It is a shame that our brothers and sisters in the GMB have found it necessary to give notice of dates for strike action at Hollingdean depot – strike action which, if it proceeds, will have a serious and negative impact upon Brighton and Hove.

Some Labour Party members may be perplexed about how it comes about that the GMB – stalwart supporters of our Party – find themselves in dispute with a Labour-led Council. In order to understand how this can be, it is important to understand the limited role of elected Councillors in the management of a local authority.

The 1989 Local Government and Housing Act, which was introduced after the period of 1980s “municipal socialism” introduced, among other things, political restrictions for senior local government officials – it also firmed up the authority of paid officials of local authorities, creating the role of “Head of the Paid Service”. The purpose of this legislation was to ensure that the paid “civil servants” within a local authority would become a line of defence against the sort of experiments in local socialism associated with (most notably) the Greater London Council.

Whilst elected Councillors set the overall policies of a local authority, it is the officers, reporting to the Head of the Paid Service (the Chief Executive) who have day to day operational management responsibility, including responsibility for employee relations. The accountability of the Head of the Paid Service to the elected Councillors varies depending upon a number of factors, including the political balance on the local authority.

In Brighton and Hove – where no single political Party has had a clear majority on the Council since 2003, it is clear that officers have become used to a marked degree of autonomy from political oversight. The Council has developed a practice of holding meetings between the Leaders of the three political groups, but although officers affect to ask the Leaders for a “political steer” from these meetings, the reality is one in which officers largely run the authority.

I have been looking back over the recent relationship between the Council and the trade unions. This is a subject which was touched upon two years ago in one of the regular “peer reviews” of the local authority organised by the Local Government Association (LGA). Peer reviews are undertaken by mixed teams of senior local government officials and elected Councillors from other local authorities and provide an overview of the functioning of a local Council from that perspective.

The LGA peer review of Brighton and Hove in April 2017 found that “Trade unions within the council could play a valuable role in the future. However, this requires dramatically improved relationships between all concerned. The current set of relationships is recognised by all as being dysfunctional. Progress can only be made if there is agreement that the relationship needs to be ‘re-set’.” The peer reviewers recommended that “External facilitation should be brought in and agreement reached by all to ‘re-set’ the council’s relationship with its trade unions.”

The Council’s (officers’) response to the peer review, in November 2017, was as follows: “The LGA highlighted the potential value of the trade unions role in the future but also the need for the council’s relationship with the trade unions to be given a fresh start, beginning with external facilitation to work towards this. Officers will seek to engage members and the trade unions in taking this recommendation forward.”

The Action Plan associated with this response assigned responsibility for action to “Leaders/CEO/ELT” and proposed to “Consult with trade unions on willingness to participate in the process of strengthening relationships, pending Group discussion” this was to be done by December 2017.

In February 2018, the Tory Group put a motion to Council calling, amongst other things, for the Chief Executive to “Set-up a cross-party working group to oversee external facilitation that would ‘re-set’ the relationship between the Council and The Trade Unions to take place.”

“This Council calls on the Chief Executive to:
1       Continue to demonstrate through current work on the People Plan that the most valuable resource of this Council is its workforce;
      Note the extremely negative impact of austerity on all public sector workers including council staff, with knock-on impact to many people including workplace representatives, and which should be addressed by sufficient funding for public services;
3       Note that the LGA Peer Review indicated that the Council’s relationship with the Trades Unions is dysfunctional;
      Note that the LGA Peer Review called for external facilitation to be brought in to enable a ‘re-set’ to take place;
5       Note the concern of the trades unions expressed during the recent consultation process for The Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust Arrangements;
      Note positive steps taken towards an improved relationship through the written Trades Union Recognition Agreement;
7       In agreement with the trade unions, confirm other appropriate steps that might be explored with the aim of having the best possible working relationship despite the impact of austerity.”

Point 6 of the amended motion referred back to the trade union recognition report agreed by PRG Committee in November 2017. (PRG is Policy, Resources and Growth, the most important Committee of the Council).

That agreement gave the unions nothing that they did not already have by custom and practice (recognition at the level of an individual local authority is not necessary if a local authority signs up to the National Joint Council conditions of service (the Green Book) as these defined the recognised trade unions (see paragraph 5 of the Annex to Part One of the Green Book).

The recommendation from the peer review that Brighton and Hove Council needed external facilitation in order to “re-set” its relationship with its workforce and their trade unions seems to have got lost in all of this – a recommendation which had been referred, critically, to the Chief Executive to action.

As I have said here before, the responsibility for avoiding this strike action is – and remains – with our well paid Head of Paid Service. The particular circumstances in Cityclean cry out for the involvement of an external third party to “reset” employee relations on a more positive footing, and it is the responsibility of the paid officials of the Council to find a way to achieve this outcome which averts strike action.

If the Chief Executive fails in his responsibility, then Labour in Brighton and Hove must express our full solidarity with GMB comrades forced into taking action, and call for the earliest possible negotiated settlement of the dispute on a basis which respects the rights of all Council workers.

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