Heather Wakefield 10 February 2010

Hot-tempered over pay freeze

It’s time for council staff to get a better deal not a pay freeze, says Heather Wakefield

The fallout from the recession led to social workers, teaching assistants, care workers, school caretakers and librarians, and their colleagues in local government across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, beginning the year worried about the future for themselves and the services they provide.
And they were right to worry.
The services they work hard to keep running are becoming a battleground for politicians, anxious to compete for votes in the run-up to the election. And now, the employers are now trying to impose a pay freeze. This news came without any negotiation or dialogue with unions.
Local government workers are angry, and rightly so. They are already the lowest-paid staff in the public sector. The bottom pay rate in local government is £11,995, but across the rest of the public sector, the average rate jumps to £13,481.
A cleaner in the NHS gets £1,500 more on the lowest rate than a cleaner in local government. Now the poor relations of the public sector are set to get even poorer, with their colleagues elsewhere in public service getting average rises of around 2%.
The proposed freeze – or cut, when inflation is taken into account... the retail price index (RPI) currently stands at 2.4% – will hit women hardest of all.
Women make up 75% of the local government workforce, so a freeze is a direct attack on women’s pay. They will now be worrying about keeping food on their tables and heating their homes through the winter. Is this fair to staff already doing undervalued, but essential work in our communities, caring for the elderly, making school meals and supporting teachers?
Local government staff are working harder than ever to keep vital services running. Around 30% of them already do regular unpaid overtime. Now they are covering unfilled posts, many of which have been deleted, and are making up for large-scale redundancies, which hit 13,000 people last year. They have delivered above and beyond the efficiency savings demanded by central government – in fact, they were the highest on record between 2008 and 2009, reaching a total of £1.76bn.
This has led to councils stashing away £12.75bn in reserves – which have grown from £5.5bn in 2002. Clearly, there is money in the local government coffers.
So why are the employers pressing ahead with a pay freeze, a real-terms pay cut? Are claims that they can’t afford to keep workers’ pay in line with inflation justified?
The short answer is no.
Local authorities, overwhelmingly Tory controlled, are simply using the recession as a smokescreen to cut pay and services. They want the small state local government model which relies on large-scale privatisation.
Employers admit that their pay bill fell by more than 2% in real terms between 2007/08, and that 2008/09 saw an additional decrease of 2.6% in full-time equivalent posts. Add in those record-breaking savings, and the above-inflation settlement from central government of 3.4% for England and 3.2% for Wales, and you’ve got councils with £2.83bn more to spend in 2010.
But Tory-led local authorities think freezing council tax will be a vote-winner. A small rise would makes very little difference to households, but leaves a hole in council budgets. Having less money to spend will damage the already-wobbly economic recovery of local communities. Councils are major local employers, and if staff pay takes a hit and jobs are lost, less money will be spent in local shops and businesses.
It’s time for some fair pay for workers. Council staff work hard to keep our communities running smoothly, and they deserve better. That’s why, this Valentine’s Day, we will be calling on the employers to have a heart for their local government workers, not cutting their pay.
Heather Wakefield is national secretary for local government at Unison
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