By the end of the current financial year (31 March 2013) the majority of local government workers across England and Wales will not have seen even a nominal pay rise for four years. Only a handful of local councils have actually honoured the recommendation for a £250 award to those on annual salaries at or below £21,000, with several of those (including Camden) attaching strings. For those at the top of their grades – and in Camden that’s some 75% of the workforce – the pay freeze imposed in the twilight days of the last Labour government and effectively continued since the start of the Con-Dem coalition has meant a dramatic fall in real earnings estimated at nearly 15%.
In his 5 December autumn statement Chancellor George Osborne made it clear that the government intends to see the real value of our pay continue to plunge with a 1% cap on wage and salary increases across the public sector as a whole. With the Retail Price Index consistently at or above 3% this past year the gap between inflation and the pay of millions across the public sector will continue to grow. In London especially, with transport fare increases outstripping the headline rate of inflation and rents rising sharply both in the private and social housing sectors, the picture is even grimmer.
Last summer UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis pledged that our union would ‘smash the pay freeze’, even taking a sledge hammer to a block of ice sculpted into a £ sign for a photo opportunity. This past autumn UNISON, along with the other recognised unions (GMB and Unite) participating in the National Joint Council (NJC) for local government, lodged a pay claim for an unspecified, though ‘substantial’ flat rate pay increase to bring the pay freeze to a decisive end. Since then talks with the umbrella body of local government employers have proved fruitless. Officially, the council bosses’ body has yet to table an offer, but at a 14 December meeting its negotiators suggested that any increase, probably as low as 1%, would have to come at the cost of cuts to sick pay, mileage allowances and other conditions laid down in Part 2 of the ‘Green Book’ master agreement.
The national negotiators from all three unions have all agreed that this position is not acceptable and elected members of UNISON’s NJC were due to hold an urgent meeting in the first half of January. Our London regional representatives on this body are Sean Fox and Helen Steel from the Haringey branch, and John McLoughlin from Tower Hamlets.
Real pay cuts and indefinite constraints on our salaries form a central plank of the austerity programme, which the coalition administers in the name of slashing the deficit.
Meanwhile, the nation’s super-rich have simply grown richer, in fact much richer over the past 15 years and especially during the past three, according to the list of Britain’s 1,000 richest compiled for the Sunday Times, The combined income and wealth of the 1,000, which includes investment bankers and hedge fund managers, amounted to £414bn last year, a three-year increase of some £155bn or more than the British state’s current annual deficit.
To date our national union’s response to the erosion of our living standards and the accelerating growth of inequality across society has been inadequate. Sending postcards about ‘why pay matters’ to the Tory chair of the Local Government Association is, of course, a start, but not a very convincing one unless there is a clear commitment to a timetable for a national ballot in support of co-ordinated and prolonged industrial action across the local government unions and the public sector workforce as a whole.