Sean Fox. Image: Marcus Rose
On 23 May, the ballot opens that invites UNISON’s 370,000 local government and schools members to vote on whether to take industrial action over the employers’ pay offer.
The joint union pay claim for 2023/24 was for 12.7%. This was based on the government’s own inflation projection for the coming months, plus 2%, to begin the process of catching up after years of below-inflation pay increases.
The offer that came back was a flat offer of £1,925, which amounts to roughly 9% for the lowest-paid, and lower percentages as you go up the pay spine. For school employees on term-time contracts, this offer will work out to be considerably less.
Sean Fox is joint branch secretary of Haringey Local Government in London, and chair of the union’s NJC committee, which oversees decisions on local government pay in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Here, Sean offers reasons why members should vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming ballot.
The falling value of our pay
To use a phrase that I often hear from members: ‘There’s a lot of month left when the money runs out’. We’ve been falling behind on pay for years. We’ve had pay rises that haven’t matched inflation in eight of the last 10 pay rounds. The best way I can describe our situation, at the moment, is that people are working one day for free every week, if they work full time. Their pay has dropped by around 20% in a decade, in real terms. And with this pay offer it will continue to drop.
The offer might look good on paper – but it isn’t, because it doesn’t meet inflation for anybody. It’s a pay cut in real terms for every single member. Even if the employer had said, ‘Okay, we’ll pay you exactly what you want’, we’d still be 18% worse off, because we’re trying to catch up with money we’ve already lost.
The cost of living crisis
Local government in the main isn’t a particularly well-paid sector. And for most of our members, the reality of the cost of living crisis is insane.
I’ve seen from my own branch that the number of people who are applying for help to UNISON’s welfare charity, There for You, has shot up. The use of food banks and other support networks has gone up too. And this goes a lot further up the range of jobs than people would expect. At the same time, if you’re buying a house, your mortgage rates have gone up. If you heat your house, or you try to, your electricity and gas have gone up. All of these things have gone up by far more than our pay has.
One member told me, ‘If they gave me this pay rise, it would effectively get eaten up by the electricity cap’. It’s that mad.
Services are suffering too
Pay is obviously the bottom line for our members, but they do care about what they do, they care about services being stretched and cut. And local government services have been cut to the bone for a decade or more. There is nothing left to cut.
You hear so many stories of our members stepping in, using their own initiative, and spending their own money to fill the gaps. For example, school staff taking in pens, pencils, things like that, because budgets have been cut and they don’t want to see children do without.
So we’re starting to lose staff across the country, particularly at the bottom end, because there are jobs that pay better, in retail for example. I looked at a job in Aldi the other day, they were paying more than some local authorities are paying. And that’s no disrespect to people working in retail, because they’re important, but the idea that you can earn more working in a supermarket than dealing with vulnerable children is just wrong.
As well as retention, there are recruitment problems. We’ve always had problems for certain jobs – social workers and planners have always been a premium, those sorts of jobs where there are private sector places people can go and work for more money. But now, it goes a lot further down the line. So, you get schools struggling to recruit teaching assistants, because they’re being asked to do more, for less.
There needs to be more money in local government to fund decent services and to invest in the people who run those services, with proper pay, training and development. When we put the pay claim in, we were very clear to the employers that we want to work with them – to make the argument to central government for more investment.
Central government can afford it
Over half the cost of meeting our pay claim would be recouped by the government in increased tax and national insurance from the improved wages. And it’s not just that. Lots of our members are claiming in-work benefits. They claim Universal Credit, even though they’re working, to top up their income. So of course, if their wages go up, the amount central government pays in top up and other benefits goes down.
Better pay benefits the economy
If you take the area I work in, that would absolutely be the case, because the council is one of the biggest employers – we spend our money in the local shops, we spend our money on local services. And if you look at most high streets, you can see the impact of the cost of living crisis because people aren’t shopping. So it would absolutely generate income and, in turn, generate more jobs.
We need to stand up
We haven’t had a dispute about pay for several years. If there was ever a time to stand up, if there was ever a time to actually say, ‘No, we can no longer do this’, it’s now. It’s about survival – for our members and for the services they provide.
We need to show that public services, and public service workers, matter. Everyone was quite happy to say how marvellous we were during the pandemic. But our members deserve more than being patted on the head. They deserve to be able to live and enjoy their quality of life. And they can’t.
Some will say they can’t afford to go on strike. I appreciate that. It’s not an easy decision to make. No-one chooses to do it. But we have no choice. Because if we don’t, we’ll just keep getting offers like this, and our pay will keep getting stretched and depreciated.
The public is with us
Even if the Westminster government doesn’t appreciate local government, I think the public does, because they have seen everything we do for communities. We see the public support we have when we talk to parents and carers, for example, who are using particular frontline services.
The public understands why we’re balloting for strike action. They understand that they don’t see pickets every day, that it’s something that happens periodically when people can no longer sustain themselves.
They understand that people don’t go on strike because they want to, but because they have to.
If we call on the public to support us, they will. And clearly they’ve got a role to play in lobbying – primarily their MPs, but also their local councils, in turn, to lobby government.
It’s the only way
We’ve had no meaningful negotiations this year. That’s the reality. This is my fourth pay round, as chair, but I’ve been around longer. In the past, you would sit down, they would make you an offer, you would go away and consider it, you come back, you talk about it. This time, they didn’t even meet us until they made the offer. They wrote us a letter and said, ‘This is our offer’.
And they have absolutely refused to open negotiations. They said they can’t offer a penny more, never mind the significant improvement we’re asking for. My assumption is they simply think people will take this offer. But we’re not prepared to go to members and ask them to consider an offer that’s just not going to meet their needs, an offer that falls so far below the rising cost of living. That’s why we’re going straight for a ballot for action – it will send a clear message to the employers and the government that they need to pay local government and school staff the decent wages that they deserve.
I’m quite clear the only way they’ll come back and talk is if we deliver a mandate that says we’re prepared to take strike action. We may never have to picket. It’s leverage, basically, to get back round the table. The employers need to know that their staff are annoyed enough and desperate enough to take that action.
This is the message my committee wants to get to the members: if they’ll place their trust in us and vote in the way we need them to, we can then use that trust to kick down the employers’ doors.