Council staff are opting for pay cuts to save their jobs as town halls implement the biggest budget reductions since the Second World War, writes Political Correspondent Cathy Newman.
From Blackpool to Birmingham, Channel 4 News has learnt that town halls in England and Wales are cutting pay and perks for some staff by as much as 40 per cent. They say by slashing the wage bill, they will have to make far fewer redundancies and could protect services such as libraries and Sure Start centres.
In Blackpool, the Conservative council leader, Peter Callow, asked his staff how jobs could be saved. He praised the way trade unions had accepted the challenge, saying staff had volunteered to take a four-day unpaid holiday – equivalent to a 1 per cent pay cut – and proposed the end of free parking for council employees – worth another 1 per cent of salary.
But on the south coast, relations between management and unions are less cordial. Today, members of the Unite and GMB unions in Southampton accused the council of “bullying” and “blackmailing” them into accepting a 5.5 per cent pay cut.
They say that taken together with other reductions to salary and benefits, some employees – from binmen to gravediggers – will see their take-home pay fall by 17 per cent.
The unions in Southampton are now preparing for industrial action in May, and told me rubbish would go uncollected and schools closed.
“I think the likelihood of strike action is fairly great.”
Mark Wood, Unite
Mark Wood, from Unite, said: “I think the likelihood of strike action is fairly great … the type of action will affect high-profile services, such as waste collection, street cleansing. But the days where we just take a one-day strike for some publicity are gone. I think we need a prolonged, strategic period of industrial action in order to get the right result.”
The GMB’s Kevin Brandstatter said: “It’s blackmail, fundamentally blackmail. The council are trying to get our members to cut their pay to save jobs and the number of jobs they’ll save by this is pretty minimal. It’s just blackmail and our members are really angry about it.”
The Conservative-controlled city council in Southampton is refusing to back down, warning staff next week they will be sacked and made to reapply for their jobs if they don’t accept the pay cut.
Royston Smith, leader of the council, told Channel 4 News that cutting pay would save 400 jobs and meant not a single Sure Start children’s centre, library or leisure centre will close in the area.
He said: “Trying to keep more people employed, albeit on slightly less money, will mean that we can continue to provide the services that other councils are abandoning wholesale. Sure Start, libraries, leisure centres, weekly bin collections – we’ll keep all of those by keeping people employed.”
FactCheck: Councils in a Pickle over cuts?
As councils finalise their budgets for this year, Tory councillors across the country are desperately worried voters will punish them for the public spending cuts. They believe reducing staff pay rather than taking a scythe to services is the best way to avoid an election rout in May.
Just along the coast from Southampton, Dorset County Council is forcing staff to take 12 days’ unpaid leave.
In London, Wandsworth is slashing sick pay, so workers won’t get paid for the first day they call in sick.
In Wales, Rhondda Council is reducing weekend pay rates and travel allowances. Unions say some staff will see their take-home pay drop by up to 40 per cent.
Britain’s biggest council in Birmingham will end the 50-year-old system of enhanced pay for night and weekend working – cutting its wage bill by almost £10m.
In Blackpool, the Conservative council leader, Peter Callow, told me he was “quite fearful” he and his colleagues would get blamed for the spending cuts. He has personally lobbied David Cameron for an extra £1.5m to help him make £27m of savings.
But with no sign of the money, he turned to staff for ideas on where to wield the axe. He said they volunteered to take a four-day unpaid holiday this year – equivalent to a 1 per cent pay cut – and suggested ending free parking at work. Council employees will now pay 1 per cent of their salaries to park their cars.
“We’re all in this together, this is the point, and I have to commend the unions for their attitude because they’ve adopted the right attitude in my view and they’ve been obviously keen to save jobs themselves,” Mr Callow said.
“In the current climate, there are no jobs out there.”
Paul Stadnik, Blackpool Council employee
Sue Clarke, who works in the customer service department in Blackpool, said staff were willing to co-operate with council bosses because the pay cuts were not, in percentage terms, vast.
She said: “It seems to be that a majority of the staff are quite happy to give 1 per cent of their pay up to park their cars to come into work …… four days unpaid leave, none of us want to give up anything really, but we’d much prefer to give that than lose our job.”
Her colleague, Paul Stadnik, added that people were “desperate” not to lose their jobs. “In the current climate, there are no jobs out there. Within the public sector, it’s always been looked at as a job for life. That no longer exists. There aren’t the jobs in the private sector to compensate for you losing your job in the public sector,” he said.