As trade union officials we are often so busy supporting members in the here and now, that it can be difficult to take time out to discuss the big issues. It is crucial though that as a union, we do take time to think, to debate and to plan. That’s why I was so pleased to chair our Pay Seminar which took place a few weeks ago. There are few issues that are more important to our members than pay, and it is crucial that we work collectively to set a pro-active pay agenda for the coming years.
Last time regional activists came together for an event like the Pay Seminar, we were in Blackpool for the policy weekend. That event took place in September and we were in what feels like a completely different political era to the one we are in now. In September, many of us were still hoping for a General Election, and we were hoping for a Corbyn-led Labour Government to be the outcome. We got our election, but sadly, the Government we got was not the one that we wanted.
But we must face the political reality that we are in all likelihood, just at the beginning of five years of Boris Johnson-led Tory rule. So, what can we expect of a Johnson-led Government in relation to public services and more specifically, in relation to pay? Well, if you believe the rhetoric, Johnson’s Conservative Party now holds a very different economic outlook to that of the George Osborne austerity era. The election was fought to “Get Brexit Done”, but the pitch was to “Get Brexit Done” in order to invest in hospitals, schools and to put more police on the streets. If the pitch had been to “Get Brexit Done” in order to deliver a further 10 years of Osborne style austerity, then perhaps the Tories would not have been so successful in the election.
But do we believe that Johnson’s public spending promises are firstly, genuine and secondly, substantial enough to tackle the crises facing public services? In the words of the great Public Enemy: “Don’t believe the hype!”
Let’s start with the NHS. The Conservative Party promised £34bn worth of funding for the health service- “the biggest cash boost in the NHS’ history”, they claimed. Yet this appears to be another example of Tory financial book cooking. The Nuffield Trust pointed out that much of this money was not new funding and was actually taken from savings hospitals had already been forced to make. The Tories have also come under fire for including inflation in their calculations- the real term spending increase is £20.5bn, rather than £34bn, which Full Fact claims is not the “biggest cash boost in the NHS’ history”, but rather the largest increase since 2004/05- 2009/10. An improvement on austerity levels of spending? Yes. But enough to tackle the huge problems mounting for our NHS? Unlikely. The Health Foundation claims that the Tories’ proposed 3.3% spending increase falls short of the 4% required to address waiting times and the under-provision of mental health services. And that’s before we even address the issue of improving pay for health service workers.
Most NHS workers are covered by the National Health Service Agenda for Change pay agreements. The current three-year deal ends in just over one year. This means that our pay claim will need to be finalised in just over 6 months. After 7 years of zero or 1% pay rises, the latest three-year deal marked a significant improvement, particularly for the lowest paid within the health service. In spite of this, the deal was far from perfect and there are significant numbers of NHS workers who have not had a healthy pay rise for a decade. There are also major issues regarding apprentice pay within the NHS, which in some cases is being used to undercut the baseline pay rates within the Agenda for Change pay scales.
Outsourcing continues to wreak havoc with our traditional NHS pay agreements. Our members have fought six disputes in the last year alone which were as a result of outsourced NHS workers pushing for fair treatment and for the full NHS pay rises they deserved. Sodexo, Compass, ISS, OCS, iFM and Engie workers all fought and won pay rises on this issue. There is, without question, scope for further winning disputes of this nature up and down the region in the coming years.
The Tories also promised £14bn for schools, the very same schools which have been decimated by Tory school funding cuts since 2010. The Conservative manifesto promised a pay rise for teachers, and yet made no mention of teaching assistants or other school staff. Investment in school support staff is crucial.
Local Government remains the poor relation in terms of public sector funding. Even in the Tories fanciful manifesto, there was little mention of fair funding for local authorities. The money allocated by the Conservatives would not be sufficient to meet rising costs and demands over this parliament even if council tax were increased by 4% a year, which will likely lead to further cuts to local services, jobs and local government pay and conditions. Funding for councils is, as a share of GDP, at its lowest level since 1948. Since 2010, resources devoted to neighbourhood services across Britain fell by 27% (£8.9bn). The Government appears to have no plan to tackle the chronic underfunding of local government, and in fact seems to be more interested in devolving blame for cuts to local mayors and leaders of local authorities.
In terms of local government pay: the employer side met in January to consider the NJC joint unions’ pay claim for 2020. We were all expecting the employers to make us an offer. This did not materialise, which is astounding when you consider that our pay claim was submitted back in July 2019. More delay tactics by the employers followed and finally, 6 months after our pay claim was submitted, we received an offer at last- a derisory 2% pay rise. This was rejected out of hand by UNISON, UNITE and the GMB. All local government workers need a pay rise after years of pay erosion. Our claim is for £10 an hour for the lowest paid council staff and a 10% pay increase for everyone else. New research shows the actual net cost of the claim is less than half (49%) the overall projected cost of £1.6bn. If council workers got a decent pay rise, central government would save hundreds of millions of pounds. This is because council workers including library staff, teaching assistants and care workers would be earning more so wouldn’t need to claim additional benefits and would pay extra tax and national insurance. We must continue to campaign for a significant pay rise for local government workers.
On social care, the £1bn per year which has been promised by the Government for social care provision falls well short of the current funding gaps in adult and children’s services. £7 billion has been cut from adult social care since 2010, resulting in falling care quality and care packages being cut or rationed. Within five years, three million care workers will be needed to meet the growing demands for both home care and residential care. We will not recruit the three million care workers we need by offering them the minimum wage and a zero hour contract. The social care sector has an alarmingly high staff turnover rate of 30% and it’s easy to see why. Secure, well-paid jobs will be key to tackling the social care crisis and the re-launch of our region’s pioneering Care Workers for Change campaign could not have come at a better time.
In just over a year, our members have fought 10 industrial disputes in this region. Every single dispute related to pay. In social care, we fought two disputes, with AFG and Lifeways- in both cases our members were simply fighting to be paid the National Minimum Wage. This shows the scale of the battle on our hands. And of course, the only dispute which is currently still ongoing is being fought by brave drug and alcohol support workers in Wigan and Leigh, who are taking on their employer Addaction over the non-payment of a promised pay deal. They have just begun five further days of strike action and they have our full support.
It’s clear that we have crucial pay challenges facing us in several of our service groups in the near future. At the Pay Seminar, we heard from Janet Williamson of the TUC, who gave a fascinating talk about how collective bargaining can deliver a better deal at work. We were also privileged to have Lord John Hendy QC address the seminar about the future of labour relations and pay challenges in the current political climate. Finally, UNISON North West’s own Peter Urwin gave an excellent presentation about the recently launched Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter. Similar charters are being devised elsewhere in the region and if utilised successfully by local branches, they could prove to be a tool that successfully drives up pay for the lowest paid public service workers in the region. It was excellent for our activists to hear from real experts in their fields and we hope that the event has left our activists better equipped to support our members to fight their upcoming battles for fair pay.