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29 June 2010

Is the end in sight for national pay bargaining?

Local government facing "a real calamity", says union

There are signs that national-level pay bargaining is coming under increasing pressure in some parts of the public and private sectors, with one senior trade union official warning that the local government sector faces "a real calamity" if national bargaining fails to operate as it should. But are employers who refuse to negotiate shooting themselves in the foot?

The latest issue of Labour Research, the UK magazine for trade unionists, finds frustration and mounting concern among local authority unions over the status of the National Joint Council (NJC) "Green Book" agreement for local government, particularly given the lack of a pay rise this year and the unwillingness of the Tory-controlled employers' side to negotiate.

Heather Wakefield, head of local government at the UNISON public services union, warned a recent TUC seminar that "very serious and systematic" questions are now being asked about how the NJC agreement delivers for union members.

And national secretary for public services at the GMB general union Brian Strutton has voiced his members' dissatisfaction with current arrangements, describing the NJC as "dysfunctional" and of doing "absolutely nothing" for union members.

He told Labour Research that it was as if the leadership of local government was happy "to have a mechanism to keep pay levels down without doing any of the other work you'd expect in a national bargaining arrangement".

Strutton told this year's GMB congress that some councils are looking to change Green Book terms and conditions and are pressuring trade union reps to break away from the national structure.

And he told the conference: "I'm aware of a number of authorities that are trying to coerce not just union reps [but] their whole workforces to accept conditions to take them away from the Green Book. He cited Nottingham City Council which is offering its workforce a cash payment to accept new conditions outwith the Green Book, involving a vastly inferior sick pay scheme.

Peter Allenson, national officer for local government at the Unite general union, told Labour Research that employer behaviour meant local government was facing "a real calamity".

He said: "We'd oppose a break-up of national bargaining but our members are beginning to question its value. Pressure is building up like a volcano and if the employers continue to behave badly, sooner or later something will erupt. Once it does it will be hard to stop it. There is a real calamity facing the sector."

Some local government employers may well have been emboldened by the approach to national bargaining indicated by the government in its coalition agreement, which says that the government wants to "reform the existing rigid national pay and conditions rules"... for schools. However, national bargaining is more immediately at risk in this area from government policy to accelerate the academies programme and encourage "free" schools. Neither will be bound by national agreements.

In the private sector, and in contrast to claims by national bargaining's critics that it is "rigid", its defenders such as Andy Brown, corporate affairs director at the British Printing Industries Federation, argue in favour of its stabilising influence.

Brown said: "Most member companies still support the idea of a national agreement, seeing it as a force for stability."

National bargaining at company level remains the norm in some parts of the private sector, and has recently been demanded by the Unite union at Coca Cola Enterprises. National multi-employer bargaining still plays a role in parts of the private sector (e.g. construction) and has a big role in the public sector where it operates in some cases alongside independent pay review bodies.

To those public sector employers who may be contemplating more localism in bargaining, David Yeandle, head of employment policy at the EEF manufacturers' organisation, has urged caution. Speaking at the TUC seminar he said: "You cannot rush into it - do it on an unplanned basis and it's a recipe for chaos. You need expertise on the ground."


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