Camden UNISON organised meetings across four Council workplaces between Monday 28 and Thursday 31 May to offer members a detailed explanation of management’s most recent ‘full and final’ pay modernisation proposals, which the branch committee did not consider the basis for a collective bargaining agreement. In total more than 175 Council staff came along, with attendance ranging from 17 at the ever more ghostly 156 West End Lane to 92 at the Town Hall. The other venues were the Crowndale Centre and the Gospel Oak offices in Wellesley Road.
Virtually all those attending were already UNISON members, with half a dozen completing applications at the meetings. The numbers exceeded the quorum for a general branch meeting, which stands at 150 or around 5% of the membership directly employed by the Council. (A quorum empowers meetings to take formal votes and make binding decisions).
Branch secretary George Binette led off each of the meetings with a 15-20 minute history of the background to the proposals, incorporating an overview of the negotiations with UNISON and the GMB that began last September, along with an outline of the concessions management has made during the course of talks and a summary of the outstanding areas of significant disagreement. He highlighted the fact that management has, however, reserved the right to withdraw some (or potentially all) concessions in the absence of an agreement, at the same time as emphasising that sign-up to new contracts would be voluntary for the overwhelming majority of existing staff with a compensation/incentive payment for those who did sign-up at least in the initial stages. In short, while highlighting the branch committee’s opposition to the proposals he also sought to provide a fully rounded picture of a far-reaching and sophisticated package introduced with the aim of saving some £2m from the wages bill by April 2014 and a cumulative £45m or more by Financial Year 2027-28.
Each of the sessions also featured a substantial number of questions and comments from members with a dozen or more speaking from the floor at the Town Hall meeting. Repeated themes included scepticism about the ‘voluntary’ aspect of the process and strong opposition to Performance-Related Pay (PRP). In some cases, the latter reflected the view that it would be divisive within teams and actually inflame tensions with managers, while others doubted that managers conducted appraisals objectively and in any event would be under considerable pressure to minimise payouts under a PRP scheme in the context of very tight financial constraints.
In addition, further anecdotal evidence emerged from across Council directorates of a downward trend in appraisal ratings with several examples of staff going from a score of ‘4’ in recent years to ‘2’ in 2012 and even from ‘3’ to ‘1’, which would usually result in underperformance proceedings. Not surprisingly, staff are spontaneously concluding that this apparent fall in ratings must be in anticipation of the roll-out of PRP. Members also voiced concerns about the proposals creating a multi-tiered workforce regarding terms and conditions, while others were upset by the freeze on annual leave entitlement.
While we must remember that 175 people is a small proportion of the total membership and even a smaller proportion of the total workforce, such turnouts were impressive in the context of lunch-time meetings with little advance publicity. Votes came at the end of all four meetings and showed virtually unanimous support for the decision taken by 8 May branch committee to reject the current offer as the basis for a collective agreement and showed a similar level of opposition to sign-up on a voluntary basis.
One further meeting is currently scheduled between UNISON branch representatives and Human Resources management on Thursday of this week (7 June), but at present it certainly appears that negotiations have reached an impasse. Management are due to bring a report to councillors on the Audit & Corporate Sub-Committee/the Cabinet for final approval on Wednesday 18 July. In the meantime, branch officers will be using the website, the branch newsletter (Camden Eye) and local meetings to keep members informed of developments and proposed next steps.