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The Brighton pay dispute: the union view

GMB union organiser Rob Macey puts the workers' side of the argument

May 11, 2013
6 min read

This is a response to The pay dispute at Brighton council: a Green view

Brighton and Hove City Council hit the headlines this week after the workforce at their Cityclean department stopped working for two days. This action followed the announcement of proposals to make changes to pay and allowances which will see some employees standing to lose up to £4,000 a year.

In January 2013 the council announced that they would seek to introduce a new pay and allowances system for staff. Importantly, they have provided no proper legal rationale for doing this, and have refused to say what has changed since 2009 when agreements were made which were certified as legally sound at the time.

The council’s framework for implementation of the proposals was contained in a pay modernisation paper submitted to the Policy and Resources committee. The document recommended delegating responsibility for the negotiation and implementation to officers rather than elected representatives.

Councillors present voted by a majority to accept the recommendations of the paper, with Green and Conservative councillors voting in favour and Labour councillors against. This decision was concerning for a number of reasons. GMB felt it was wrong, as councillors were not prepared to face the workers they were treating badly and there was also controversy over whether councillors knew what they were voting for. In the webcast of the meeting (at 03:10) Green Cllr Shanks states that she would be ‘concerned that this is not going to hit our lowest paid workers unfairly…that needs to come back again.’ This statement would seem to indicate that she thought that the final decision would return to elected councillors.

This view was substantiated by Green councillor Alex Phillips who when asked on Twitter ‘Why is Jason (Kitcat) saying that the majority of Green Cllrs supported it?’ responded by saying ‘Because he led them to believe that officers would take their decision to group to be voted on. This was not the case’.

Jason Kitcat is convener of the Green Group of councillors and leader of the City Council. Cllr Phillips’ statement confirms that he misled his own councillors in advance of the vote. This is not the first time he has faced such allegations. In April Kitcat had to apologise for making misleading statements about the effect of the proposals on staff after being challenged by GMB branch secretary Mark Turner.

After the Pay Modernisation Report was passed, council officers began negotiating with recognised unions. Councillors were told not to comment on the negotiations, presumably so as not to undermine their officers’ negotiating positions.

During the negotiations the council issued a press release indicating that the Cityclean Service would operate on bank holidays. They also briefed ward councillors on a planning application to allow this to happen. This is significant, as the effect of doing so means the loss of ‘make up pay’ for employees taking on the additional work and hours after a bank holiday, which is paid if strict conditions are met. This action highlights a blatant lack of meaningful consultation as it is clear a decision had already been made.

As the negotiations progressed it was clear to see that the council were not prepared to budge and that little was to change between their initial proposal and what would became their ‘best and final’ offer. A large number of GMB members would still stand to lose up to £4,000 per year, and 260 members at the Council’s Cityclean department were to be particularly badly affected, with an average loss of £2,000 rising to £4,000 for many.

As such GMB launched a campaign to highlight the affect that such substantial cuts would have on members. We launched a petition on our website, that thousands of members of the public have now signed and we made a video of GMB members at Cityclean talking about the implications of the proposed cuts.

On 8th May the council held a mass meeting with Cityclean staff to brief them on their best and final offer. Staff refused to work for two days, and the value of their work was quickly seen as the city’s streets descended into rubbish-strewn chaos. Staff went back to work on 10 May, on the basis that GMB would conduct an official ballot for industrial action, and formal notice of this ballot will be sent to the council early next week.

The action taken by the workers, while not endorsed by GMB, brought the matter to a head. The Green Party had held a meeting the previous night were they voted by a large majority to support staff and campaign against any cuts. A number of Green councillors also spoke to the workforce and stated that they opposed Kitcat’s proposals and would resign if necessary. The Green MP for Brighton, Caroline Lucas, also visited the workers to express her support, and condemned any measures that would reduce take-home pay.

As a result Cllr Kitcat’s Green administration is now acting in direct violation of his party’s own democratically decided policy and against the position of many of his own councillors and the Green Party’s only MP. His position has become untenable and as a result of his actions in misleading the public, his own councillors and our members, GMB no longer have trust and confidence in him to continue in his role.

Given the situation the Green Party must act. Whilst support is appreciated, they cannot protest against Kitcat’s actions while still allowing them to happen. We are willing to try to resolve this dispute but the Green Group must play its part too.

It is also important that Labour councillors stand up and be counted. Whilst it is noted that they voted against the proposals in January, they must now speak out, and also support any measures by Green councillors who seek to bring the decision back under democratic control. As for the Conservatives, they shouldn’t get away scot free, but at least we know what to expect with them.

I’m sure there will significant developments in the coming weeks, but in the interim Councillors may wish to consider the case of Aberdeenshire Council. They faced exactly the same dispute in January 2013 and withdrew their proposals when agreement could not be reached.

Rob Macey is a GMB Senior Organiser for Legal, Political and Campaigns. You can find updates on the dispute and sign our petition at www.gmb-southern.org.uk/bhcc / twitter @gmbsouthern. You can also follow the workers on twitter on @gmbcityclean

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