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Local government pay: fight for the 5% claim, fully funded
Over a million council and school workers have been waiting to see if there would be any relief from their constant falling living standards as they have watched their pay fall by 21% in real terms since 2010.
After a decade of little or no pay awards and the unions not delivering more, it is entirely understandable that there will be union members who will think that the 2% now being offered is ok.
But the brutal truth is that it is in reality yet another pay cut and one that can't be recommended.
Last June Unison, Unite and the GMB submitted a claim for 5% for all (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) with the promise that they would fight to smash the pay cap.
After the general election result the government came under increasing pressure to break the pay cap across the public sector and even the local government employers were supporting the claim for higher pay.
Last week (5th December) the local government employers announced their pay offer to the unions, breaking the 1% pay cap.
All workers earning over £10.27 an hour are being offered a 2% rise this year and 2% next year. However this is just 20p an hour increase at the bottom of the grades, before tax and national insurance deductions.
With the RPI inflation rate currently running at 4%, once again workers are being asked to take another year of pay cuts and this offer will do nothing to make up for the thousands of pounds lost in a decade or more of pay cuts.
For those local authority workers who have been privatised or shipped off to the voluntary sector or academies, they may not even benefit from this pitiful rise.
The offer is being praised by the Labour leader in the Local Government Association (and by some trade union leaders) because there will be pay rises of up to 16% over two years for the very lowest paid.
In fact only 3,485 workers would benefit from this level of increase of 72p an hour next year. While this is obviously to be welcomed, what they fail to mention however, is that the real reason why they have had to increase the rate of those earning as little as £7.78 an hour by more than the 2% offer is because the pay of the lowest paid council workers has fallen so far that local government employers were in danger of falling foul of the Tories' own legal Living Wage figure of £9 per hour that must be introduced by 2020.
As if the deal wasn't bad enough, there is no additional funding being offered to fund it. It is estimated to put 5.8% on the pay bill over the next two years.
Without extra funding it is not an exaggeration to say that we could see councils and schools giving pay rises on a Monday only to hand out redundancy notices on a Friday to pay for them.
Heather Wakefield, the head of Unison in local government, said: "The government must now come up with the cash to fund local government properly so councils have the money to give their staff a wage increase that doesn't put more services or jobs at risk."
The question many Unison members will ask is: what is the union strategy to force the government to fund even this pitiful offer, let alone fight for the full claim?
The national local government Labour Party leader, Councillor Nick Forbes, was called "a hypocrite" by his own local union leaders in Newcastle when he said: "We unreservedly welcome the local government employers' decision to recognise the hardship faced by council workers in recent years, to offer 2% for the next two years".
That is because Newcastle council, where he is the council leader, has only budgeted for a 1% increase in staff salaries for 2018, and its Director of Resources made a point of briefing staff that any increase beyond 1% would put an extra £2 million on the council's staffing budget and would have to be paid for elsewhere.
The unions are considering their response to the offer. Already there is talk of accepting it and just campaigning for the government to fund it.
Socialist Party members in Unison and Unite have been arguing that the local government unions should join with the PCS civil servants' union and start a real fight for the full claim, fully funded, by beginning national consultative ballots; and for the TUC to bring forward the national demonstration it has called for 12th May.
PCS has correctly used its consultative ballot result to call for the public sector unions to come together as they did in 2011 on pensions, and coordinate strike ballots.
But it rightly will also continue to prepare its own members to ensure that they are ready if and when it is necessary to move to a statutory industrial action ballot.
Members and activists of unions in local government and the NHS must link up with those in PCS to ensure that some union leaders do not stop the public sector pay battle before it has even begun.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 8 December 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.