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Unison

<em>Picture: A Gude</em>

Picture: A Gude

By John Knox

There are some questions in life we just don’t like to be asked. But my local council has had the temerity to ask us where we would be prepared to see the spending axe fall. And 50 brave, and somewhat confused, citizens gathered in a large, dark hall on the south side of Edinburgh to respond to this challenge.

It was an evening of grim unenlightenment but, as often happens in the topsy-turvy world of politics, the voting rather surprised us all. I report this meeting, similar to ones being held all over Scotland I imagine, in the hope that it gives an insight into how our great British democracy is working.

The £90m problem facing the council in Edinburgh was put to us by a forbidding row of top officials sitting behind the modern equivalent of a trestle table and speaking into the usual whining microphones. A screen on the left posed the eight awkward little questions of the night. And a front row of councillors were “there to listen”.

At the end of this consultation process, they will have to answer the one big question – how, in heaven’s name, will we cut 10 per cent from the city’s budget without anyone noticing, or at least without causing riots in the streets.

We moved slowly to question one, because first we had to let off a little steam. Some folk complained the questions were rigged or were too vague. Others declared “we should not be paying for the mistakes of the bankers”. And there were the usual tram bores – Edinburgh tends to breed a very self-righteous species of bore – who have still failed to grasp the fact that the central government is paying for 90 per cent of the tram project and most of the money has already been spent. Going on about it does not solve our present problems.

The chairman was obviously inexperienced at handling wasps’ nests but he eventually plucked up the courage to move us on to question one: should the cuts focus on back room or front line activities? Opinion was surprisingly divided on this loaded question, 24 per cent went one way, 26 per cent the other, and the other half of the audience didn’t vote. I know this because there was a clever electronic voting system rigged up in the hall.

It’s also worth pointing out that the question – each question – was preceded by a “briefing” from the officials and a couple of discussion points from the floor. This turned out to be a surprisingly thoughtful process, balancing one option against another – long term versus short term, preventive measures versus reactive measures, efficient versus tailored services.

So on to question two: should services be targeted? 69 per cent of those voting said yes, 31 per cent said no. Question 3: could services be delivered by other non-council organisations, including private firms? The answer was 60 per cent yes and 40 per cent no. On increasing charges for council services, 59 per cent said OK, 41 per cent were against. On the suggestion that dustbins should be collected every fortnight instead of every week, the hall was split 50-50.

And, most surprising of all, 78 per cent of those voting said they would be prepared to pay more council tax.

Thus the voting produced quite strong support for a radical reform of council services. This came as a surprise to me because the questions and comments from the floor had been largely against change. And at the door, as we’d come in, members of Unison had been handing out red hot leaflets warning against the dangers of privatisation.

But there were more surprises for me. We were told that Edinburgh council had saved £90m from its budget over the past three years – with the loss of over 400 jobs. This, curiously, is exactly the same figure as we are being asked to save over the next three years but, this time, the cuts will mean 1,600 job losses, or so the finance director Donald McDougan, told us.

He also told us that 40 per cent of the council’s budget of £1 billion was spent on pay and pensions – a figure so low that I find it hard to believe. Think of all those teachers, social workers, park attendants, librarians, dustbin collectors, some 20,000 in all, if you count part-timers. And not all of them are low paid. 120 have salaries of over £58,000. The chief executive Tom Aitchison is reputed to be paid £160,000 a year and will retire in January on a pension of £85,000.

And another extraordinary thing we were told was that the council has already identified £16m of savings over the next three years, cutting 300 jobs, but it hopes to keep the redundancy bill down to £2-3m. Again I found that difficult to believe.

Like many in the hall, I began to question the wisdom of this whole exercise. Cutting jobs on this scale – at a time of recession or near recession – is just what a government is not supposed to do, according to conventional economic theory. But, hey, this is local government and councillors have no choice but to go along with the cuts. 77 per cent of Edinburgh Council’s income, after all, comes from the central government.

Changes in services – targeting, privatising, reforming – are all very well, but it seems to me they would be better left to times of plenty, when the private and voluntary sectors are ready to take them over and when those made redundant by the council can find new jobs.

There is thus an air of madness about the whole exercise about the reasons for the cuts, about the cuts themselves, and about the random figures that are being thrown about, 10 per cent cuts, 25 per cent cuts, 40 per cent cuts, the job numbers involved – 50,000 – 60,000 across Scotland – and the various estimates of savings, efficiencies, redundancy costs, costs to the wider economy.

And in that dismal hall too, there was an air of phoney war, of gas masks being issued before an undefined threat, of people struggling to find a consensus about what should be done. What the councillors in the front row made of it all, I just cannot begin to guess. But under our democratic system, they have to decide where the axe should fall. May they be more enlightened than the rest of us. And may we survive the blood-letting.

Tyldesley miners outside the Miners Hall during the 1926 General StrikeEurope is bracing itself for a wave of mass industrial action. As austerity measures start to bite in several EU countries, including France, Greece and Spain, strikes are already planned. Now, those countries include the UK. At its annual congress in Manchester, the TUC agreed to co-ordinate protests here as well.

Some unions have already started preparing to direct their members on to a collision course with the government. Their leaders lined up to condemn the coalition for its spending cuts. They argue that those implemented have already hit public sector workers. They claim that over 200,000 jobs have already been lost or are under threat of redundancy.

The TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, attacked what he dubbed “the demolition Government”. He admitted that unions were facing “stark realities” following the general election, explaining that he meant “the Government’s determination to drive through massive spending cuts, which will not only devastate the services we rely on, but do untold damage to our economic prospects.”

Mr Barber went on to say that no-one could deny the depth of the recession, which he maintained was made in the boardrooms of the world’s banks. “Rightly, governments made sure that the banking system did not collapse. They took emergency action to ensure that recession did not turn into slump. They showed that we did not have to repeat the 1930s”

But in his speech, Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, insisted that it was a “lie” that the country could not afford decent public services. “If there’s money available to bail out banks and bonuses, if there’s money for war and Trident, there’s money for our public services,” he said. “If money’s tight, never mind a pay freeze for our members, how about a pay freeze for bankers?”

And it looks likely that the unions will have support from at least some leading members of Labour as well. In her keynote speech to the TUC, Labour’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, backed union plans to mount a massive campaign of co-ordinated strike action.

“We will not be silenced by the right-wing characterising protest as undemocratic,” she said. “Trade unionists have the democratic rights to protest. We will not be deterred by suggestions that this is illegitimate – it is perfectly within the law. We will not be cowed by accusations that this is irresponsible and putting services at risk – the very opposite is true.”

Militant left-wingers, like Bob Crow of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, have called for civil disobedience to defend public services. He drew loud applause when he said: “We lie down or stand up and fight.”

If their plans come to fruition, this country is facing a bitter series of strikes. The protests and demonstrations could start as early as next month and last for years.

That could be the shape of things to come in several EU countries. Looking at the wider picture, Juan Somavia, director general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), told an international conference in Oslo it was “natural” for trade unions to protest and help “vent steam” in societies hurt by job losses. But they should also be involved in deals to keep the economy going.

The ILO’s latest statistics show just how damaging the recession has been. Up to 30 million people have become unemployed in the last three years, mainly in the developed world. If it hadn’t been for the stimulus packages introduced by many Governments, that figure could well have been 50 million or more.

It also warns that almost 450 million people will try to join the global workforce over the next decade. That’s double the number currently without a job. The ILO says that raises “the spectre of a lost generation”. Somavia wants governments to extend measures to foster the still fragile recovery and help support jobs.

In this, he’s supported, perhaps unexpectedly by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Its managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now supports government intervention. He insisted at the same conference that it was a “misleading caricature” to think that the fund cared only about the austerity cuts usually associated with its programmes.

Unemployment is “about far more than just a pay cheque”, he said, adding that schemes to extend unemployment benefits helped maintain demand and morale. They also gave short-term incentives to companies to retain more workers but at reduced hours and wages.

Reuters has reported that several European leaders have issued warnings about the risks of a “crisis of confidence”. In Spain for instance, the unemployment rate has hit 20%. It has led that country’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, to claim that the “worst crisis would be a crisis of pessimism, of a lack of confidence, of resignation. Europe must not fall into that.”

But the news agency reports that the secretary of state for work and pensions here, Iain Duncan Smith, insisted that “everyone is throwing out a lot of stimulus, but to lesser and lesser effect. We think it’s time to start pulling that back. If it goes on, we will start to squeeze out the private economy so it won’t have room to grow.”

The European Commission believes that some growth will come anyway. In its latest economic forecast, it suggests that the seven largest members of the EU, including the UK, are recovering at a faster pace than previously envisaged. Between them, these seven countries represent almost 80% of the European Union’s GDP.

Looking forward, Europe’s economists believe that GDP will grow by 0.5% in the third quarter of the year and by slightly less in the fourth. They argue that, for 2010 as a whole, growth should now reach 1.8%, a sizeable upward revision on six months ago. At the same time, they expect inflation to remain either steady or to fall slightly.

However, the commission’s report insists that “uncertainty at the current juncture is high, with non-negligible risks to the EU growth outlook. On the upside, the impetus from the export-led industrial rebound to private consumption could prove stronger than assumed in the baseline, as was the case in the first half of the year.”

The EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn told a news conference that “the European economy is clearly on a path of recovery, more strongly than forecast in the spring, and the rebound of domestic demand bodes well for the job market. However, uncertainties remain and safeguarding financial stability and continuing fiscal consolidation remain key priorities.”

He stressed the need for “structural reforms to lift our growth potential. The sooner and stronger we act on this front, the more certain we can be of sustained growth and job creation.” But he added: “ We now have solid ground under our feet. We have started scoring again, but there is no reason to shout for victory. We must remain alert and vigilant.”

The question now is whether that growth can be maintained if countries like the UK, France, Spain and Greece are brought to a halt by striking union members. At least one other member of the European Commission, Laszlo Andor (who deals with employement and social affairs), has warned that “2011 may turn out to be the annus horriblis for social cohesion”.

Tyldesley miners outside the Miners Hall during the 1926 General StrikeEurope is bracing itself for a wave of mass industrial action. As austerity measures start to bite in several EU countries, including France, Greece and Spain, strikes are already planned. Now, those countries include the UK. At its annual congress in Manchester, the TUC agreed to co-ordinate protests here as well.

Some unions have already started preparing to direct their members on to a collision course with the government. Their leaders lined up to condemn the coalition for its spending cuts. They argue that those implemented have already hit public sector workers. They claim that over 200,000 jobs have already been lost or are under threat of redundancy.

The TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, attacked what he dubbed “the demolition Government”. He admitted that unions were facing “stark realities” following the general election, explaining that he meant “the Government’s determination to drive through massive spending cuts, which will not only devastate the services we rely on, but do untold damage to our economic prospects.”

Mr Barber went on to say that no-one could deny the depth of the recession, which he maintained was made in the boardrooms of the world’s banks. “Rightly, governments made sure that the banking system did not collapse. They took emergency action to ensure that recession did not turn into slump. They showed that we did not have to repeat the 1930s”

But in his speech, Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, insisted that it was a “lie” that the country could not afford decent public services. “If there’s money available to bail out banks and bonuses, if there’s money for war and Trident, there’s money for our public services,” he said. “If money’s tight, never mind a pay freeze for our members, how about a pay freeze for bankers?”

And it looks likely that the unions will have support from at least some leading members of Labour as well. In her keynote speech to the TUC, Labour’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, backed union plans to mount a massive campaign of co-ordinated strike action.

“We will not be silenced by the right-wing characterising protest as undemocratic,” she said. “Trade unionists have the democratic rights to protest. We will not be deterred by suggestions that this is illegitimate – it is perfectly within the law. We will not be cowed by accusations that this is irresponsible and putting services at risk – the very opposite is true.”

Militant left-wingers, like Bob Crow of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, have called for civil disobedience to defend public services. He drew loud applause when he said: “We lie down or stand up and fight.”

If their plans come to fruition, this country is facing a bitter series of strikes. The protests and demonstrations could start as early as next month and last for years.

That could be the shape of things to come in several EU countries. Looking at the wider picture, Juan Somavia, director general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), told an international conference in Oslo it was “natural” for trade unions to protest and help “vent steam” in societies hurt by job losses. But they should also be involved in deals to keep the economy going.

The ILO’s latest statistics show just how damaging the recession has been. Up to 30 million people have become unemployed in the last three years, mainly in the developed world. If it hadn’t been for the stimulus packages introduced by many Governments, that figure could well have been 50 million or more.

It also warns that almost 450 million people will try to join the global workforce over the next decade. That’s double the number currently without a job. The ILO says that raises “the spectre of a lost generation”. Somavia wants governments to extend measures to foster the still fragile recovery and help support jobs.

In this, he’s supported, perhaps unexpectedly by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Its managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now supports government intervention. He insisted at the same conference that it was a “misleading caricature” to think that the fund cared only about the austerity cuts usually associated with its programmes.

Unemployment is “about far more than just a pay cheque”, he said, adding that schemes to extend unemployment benefits helped maintain demand and morale. They also gave short-term incentives to companies to retain more workers but at reduced hours and wages.

Reuters has reported that several European leaders have issued warnings about the risks of a “crisis of confidence”. In Spain for instance, the unemployment rate has hit 20%. It has led that country’s prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, to claim that the “worst crisis would be a crisis of pessimism, of a lack of confidence, of resignation. Europe must not fall into that.”

But the news agency reports that the secretary of state for work and pensions here, Iain Duncan Smith, insisted that “everyone is throwing out a lot of stimulus, but to lesser and lesser effect. We think it’s time to start pulling that back. If it goes on, we will start to squeeze out the private economy so it won’t have room to grow.”

The European Commission believes that some growth will come anyway. In its latest economic forecast, it suggests that the seven largest members of the EU, including the UK, are recovering at a faster pace than previously envisaged. Between them, these seven countries represent almost 80% of the European Union’s GDP.

Looking forward, Europe’s economists believe that GDP will grow by 0.5% in the third quarter of the year and by slightly less in the fourth. They argue that, for 2010 as a whole, growth should now reach 1.8%, a sizeable upward revision on six months ago. At the same time, they expect inflation to remain either steady or to fall slightly.

However, the commission’s report insists that “uncertainty at the current juncture is high, with non-negligible risks to the EU growth outlook. On the upside, the impetus from the export-led industrial rebound to private consumption could prove stronger than assumed in the baseline, as was the case in the first half of the year.”

The EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn told a news conference that “the European economy is clearly on a path of recovery, more strongly than forecast in the spring, and the rebound of domestic demand bodes well for the job market. However, uncertainties remain and safeguarding financial stability and continuing fiscal consolidation remain key priorities.”

He stressed the need for “structural reforms to lift our growth potential. The sooner and stronger we act on this front, the more certain we can be of sustained growth and job creation.” But he added: “ We now have solid ground under our feet. We have started scoring again, but there is no reason to shout for victory. We must remain alert and vigilant.”

The question now is whether that growth can be maintained if countries like the UK, France, Spain and Greece are brought to a halt by striking union members. At least one other member of the European Commission, Laszlo Andor (who deals with employement and social affairs), has warned that “2011 may turn out to be the annus horriblis for social cohesion”.

<em>Picture: gagilas</em>

Picture: gagilas

Gordon Matheson, the leader of Glasgow City Council, ignited a public debate over the council tax today by calling on the Scottish Government to drop its plans for a fourth-year tax freeze.

Mr Matheson has written to John Swinney, Scotland’s Finance Secretary, asking for councils to be given the chance to raise council tax next year.

The SNP administration brought in a council tax freeze during its first year in office. The three-year deal was part of a concordat with local government.

It was also, however, designed to be a short-term measure because ministers hoped to introduce a local income tax to replace the council tax.

The local income tax plans were destroyed by the opposition but the council-tax freeze remained in place. Indeed, it has become such a symbol of SNP success that it has now become extremely difficult for ministers to abandon the policy.

In each one of the policy’s first three years, councils agreed to the freeze and took a total of £70 million per year in compensation. The concordat also removed some of the ring-fencing which restricted council spending decisions.

After the three-year freeze, ministers were faced with a dilemma. There was no local income tax. They had brought in a council-tax freeze for three years but there was an election looming.

Should they end the council-tax freeze, saving themselves £70 million a year, but suffer the consequences at the 2011 election or should they stick with the freeze?

Ministers have decided to go with electoral concerns rather than financial ones and said they intend to push ahead with the fourth council tax freeze, for the year 2011-12 – aware that, if they didn’t, the first rises in four years would drop on to doormats all over the country at the same time as campaign flyers for the election.

But, faced with savage cuts, senior figures in Scotland’s councils have started resisting the fourth-year freeze. They want the £70 million but want to be able to raise council tax levels too.

They believe they will have to axe frontline services if they are not able to raise money through a tax rise.

Unison, the main local government union, has been lobbying for an end to the council-tax freeze for some time.

It has been joined by other critics in local government who believe the council-tax freeze is wrong because it is a universal benefit: it rewards everybody, including all those on good incomes who can afford a tax rise.

They want to see the money targeted more closely on to those who really need it, nor spread around the whole community.

For them, the council-tax freeze has always been a ‘middle-class tax cut’ designed to win popularity at the ballot box rather than a true attempt to relieve poverty.

However, as a result of the publication of Mr Matheson’s letter in the Herald this morning, this private discussion between ministers, the unions and local government has become a public debate about the forthcoming cuts.

Many in Scotland’s councils are also aggrieved by the Scottish Government’s decision to protect health spending.

When this is taken into account with the council tax freeze, it is clear where the councils are coming from.

They want the flexibility to raise the money they need to keep services going and are angry that they are going to have inflict even deeper cuts on their own services to make up for the protection given to the health budget.

If ministers wanted to antagonise local government in Scotland, they really couldn’t have done it any better if they tried.

But, with just five months left until the Scottish Government’s budget has to be approved by parliament, this simmering dispute has to be fixed soon.

Either the Scottish Government will back down, withdraw the fourth-year freeze and allow councils to raise the money they need. (Doing that would probably be the right thing financially but the wrong thing electorally).

Or, ministers can push on with the freeze, giving yet more of the shrinking Scottish block grant to councils just to keep council taxes down and hope to find the cuts elsewhere.

Electoral politics or financial reality? It is clear which way ministers want to go but do they have the financial reserves to carry it through? We will know in the next few months.

<em>Picture: gagilas</em>

Picture: gagilas

Gordon Matheson, the leader of Glasgow City Council, ignited a public debate over the council tax today by calling on the Scottish Government to drop its plans for a fourth-year tax freeze.

Mr Matheson has written to John Swinney, Scotland’s Finance Secretary, asking for councils to be given the chance to raise council tax next year.

The SNP administration brought in a council tax freeze during its first year in office. The three-year deal was part of a concordat with local government.

It was also, however, designed to be a short-term measure because ministers hoped to introduce a local income tax to replace the council tax.

The local income tax plans were destroyed by the opposition but the council-tax freeze remained in place. Indeed, it has become such a symbol of SNP success that it has now become extremely difficult for ministers to abandon the policy.

In each one of the policy’s first three years, councils agreed to the freeze and took a total of £70 million per year in compensation. The concordat also removed some of the ring-fencing which restricted council spending decisions.

After the three-year freeze, ministers were faced with a dilemma. There was no local income tax. They had brought in a council-tax freeze for three years but there was an election looming.

Should they end the council-tax freeze, saving themselves £70 million a year, but suffer the consequences at the 2011 election or should they stick with the freeze?

Ministers have decided to go with electoral concerns rather than financial ones and said they intend to push ahead with the fourth council tax freeze, for the year 2011-12 – aware that, if they didn’t, the first rises in four years would drop on to doormats all over the country at the same time as campaign flyers for the election.

But, faced with savage cuts, senior figures in Scotland’s councils have started resisting the fourth-year freeze. They want the £70 million but want to be able to raise council tax levels too.

They believe they will have to axe frontline services if they are not able to raise money through a tax rise.

Unison, the main local government union, has been lobbying for an end to the council-tax freeze for some time.

It has been joined by other critics in local government who believe the council-tax freeze is wrong because it is a universal benefit: it rewards everybody, including all those on good incomes who can afford a tax rise.

They want to see the money targeted more closely on to those who really need it, nor spread around the whole community.

For them, the council-tax freeze has always been a ‘middle-class tax cut’ designed to win popularity at the ballot box rather than a true attempt to relieve poverty.

However, as a result of the publication of Mr Matheson’s letter in the Herald this morning, this private discussion between ministers, the unions and local government has become a public debate about the forthcoming cuts.

Many in Scotland’s councils are also aggrieved by the Scottish Government’s decision to protect health spending.

When this is taken into account with the council tax freeze, it is clear where the councils are coming from.

They want the flexibility to raise the money they need to keep services going and are angry that they are going to have inflict even deeper cuts on their own services to make up for the protection given to the health budget.

If ministers wanted to antagonise local government in Scotland, they really couldn’t have done it any better if they tried.

But, with just five months left until the Scottish Government’s budget has to be approved by parliament, this simmering dispute has to be fixed soon.

Either the Scottish Government will back down, withdraw the fourth-year freeze and allow councils to raise the money they need. (Doing that would probably be the right thing financially but the wrong thing electorally).

Or, ministers can push on with the freeze, giving yet more of the shrinking Scottish block grant to councils just to keep council taxes down and hope to find the cuts elsewhere.

Electoral politics or financial reality? It is clear which way ministers want to go but do they have the financial reserves to carry it through? We will know in the next few months.

<em>Picture: Swim Parallel</em>

Picture: Swim Parallel

“They still don’t get it,” was turned from a cry of anguish into a tabloid slogan during the MPs’ expenses scandal.

“They still don’t get it,” screamed the papers as MP after MP refused to see they had done anything wrong.

Now let’s look at Scotland’s council workers and their decision to reject a 1.5 per cent pay deal over the next three years – one thing is clear: “they still don’t get it.”

By voting against the pay deal and holding out for more, Scotland’s council workers are voting themselves out of a job. There is a simple choice here for every council worker: accept a tiny pay increase for the next three years and endure harsh job cuts or wring a pay rise out of your employers and watch thousands of your colleagues – and maybe even yourself – thrown out of work.

The country is spending vast amounts more than it is earning. There is a debt the size and depth of Loch Ness in our finances. It has to be plugged. We have to start earning more money and spending less.

That means the vast amount we spend on our public services (the majority of which goes on wages) has to be cut. If not, tens of thousands of jobs will go, and go soon.

Any move to cut the wage bill will save jobs, it is simple as that and yet, according to the results of the ballot announced yesterday, our council workers just don’t get it.

They would rather hold out for more money and increase the wage bill than accept the gravity of the situation we are facing.

Three unions, the GMB, Unite and Unison have now all decided to reject a 1.5 per cent pay offer over three years. In the final ballot result, announced yesterday, Unison members rejected the pay off by 80 per cent to 20 per cent.

Interestingly, though, a total of 25,500 Unison members voted but 57,000 failed to respond. The union blamed the summer holidays for the low turnout but many of those members who didn’t bother to vote might regret that decision if the dispute escalates into industrial action by the autumn.

Instead of the 1.5 per cent on offer, Unison wants a one-year deal worth three per cent or £600, whichever is the greatest, plus a £7 minimum wage (the current level is £5.80 an hour except in Glasgow where it is £7).

Early forecasts suggest that meeting the unions’ demands would cost £100 million or at least 6,500 job cuts.

It is the job of a trade union to fight for better pay and conditions for its members. But there comes a time when any union has to weigh up the options and, faced with massive jobs losses or a pay rise, the unions have chosen the wrong one.

They wouldn’t accept that it is such a straight choice. They wouldn’t accept that there have to be job cuts. But they are wrong. There have to be job cuts and there will be job cuts. It is as simple and as brutal as that.

By holding out for more money, they are condemning more of their members to a future on the dole.

The argument that the unions have used to justify their demands for more money are based, in part, around the pay deals awarded to teachers and council chiefs.

Union officials have claimed that local authorities recently got a 2.5 per cent award and teachers got a 2.4 per cent rise.

They are right. These were wrong. They were totally unacceptable in the current climate and should never have been agreed. Even if they were part of long-term package agreements, those should have been torn up and thrown away. There is no way anybody in the public sector should be getting those sort of awards, particularly when those at the bottom are being offered very little.

But just because one set of awards was wrong doesn’t make it right for everybody else to believe they should get the same thing. That would make the situation even worse.

In England, a two-year public sector pay freeze is on its way. Those earning £21,000 or less will get an annual rise of £250. Everybody else will get nothing – which amounts to a real terms pay cut.

In Scotland, council workers were offered a better deal than that, one per cent this year followed by 0 per cent in 2011-12 and 0.5 per cent in 2012-13.

It obviously looked so paltry to Scotland’s council workers that they decided to reject it, despite the fact it is better than that offered to council workers in England and far better than many in the private sector – tens of thousands of whom have already lost their jobs in this recession and tens of thousands of others have had indefinite pay freezes (or even reductions) imposed by managers.

It really appears as if many council workers don’t know how good their pay and conditions are.

The last time I mentioned this, on that occasion to do with gold-plated public sector pensions, one public sector reader commented on the piece to say that he contributed a lot to his own pension: a whopping ten per cent.

Let me put that in perspective. If I, as someone self-employed in the private sector, want a pension, I have to pay for all of it. I have to contribute 100 per cent. Even when I was employed by a relatively generous private sector employer, I paid at least 50 per cent of my pension and often more. Ten per cent? Most people working in the private sector can’t even dream about such deals.

Public sector workers are now paid, on average, more than private sector employees. On average, they also enjoy more generous pension provision and more generous redundancy deals.

I don’t begrudge them these benefits, all I ask is that they recognise the advantages of the position they are in and, when asked to accept a minimal pay rise in times of absolute austerity, they should accept that they have to share some of the pain – alongside the private sector which has been suffering for the past two years.

One of the arguments that has been hammered around the public sector in the last couple of years has been this: “We didn’t cause the recession, the bankers did. Why should we have to suffer when it was all the fault of the bankers?”

Yes, the bankers did cause the recession but nobody is asking the public sector to suffer just for the bankers. The whole country is suffering, more than that, the private sector has taken such a huge hit over the past two years – just ask anyone in the construction industry – that is clear that everyone is suffering, everyone is being asked to shoulder a share of the pain.

What is wrong is to expect that one section of society should be exempt.

So, when it comes down to being offered a small pay deal which means a virtual pay cut, council workers should really think long and hard before rejecting it.

The alternative is job losses, tens of thousands of them.

Unison lead negotiator Dougie Black said yesterday: “Industrial action is one of a range of possible options we will be considering.”

Go ahead, take strike action, keep demanding unrealistic and ludicrously expensive pay deals: see what happens. You have already lost the support of the vast majority of ordinary those in the private sector, people who have either lost their jobs, been given pay freezes or endured pay cuts, people who have taken on extra, part-time jobs and cut back everywhere to make ends meet.

You have already lost their support and “you still don’t get it”.

Be my guest, vote for industrial action and I’ll see many, many more of you on the dole queues than would have been the case had you swallowed your pride and taken the sensible option.

<em>Picture: Swim Parallel</em>

Picture: Swim Parallel

“They still don’t get it,” was turned from a cry of anguish into a tabloid slogan during the MPs’ expenses scandal.

“They still don’t get it,” screamed the papers as MP after MP refused to see they had done anything wrong.

Now let’s look at Scotland’s council workers and their decision to reject a 1.5 per cent pay deal over the next three years – one thing is clear: “they still don’t get it.”

By voting against the pay deal and holding out for more, Scotland’s council workers are voting themselves out of a job. There is a simple choice here for every council worker: accept a tiny pay increase for the next three years and endure harsh job cuts or wring a pay rise out of your employers and watch thousands of your colleagues – and maybe even yourself – thrown out of work.

The country is spending vast amounts more than it is earning. There is a debt the size and depth of Loch Ness in our finances. It has to be plugged. We have to start earning more money and spending less.

That means the vast amount we spend on our public services (the majority of which goes on wages) has to be cut. If not, tens of thousands of jobs will go, and go soon.

Any move to cut the wage bill will save jobs, it is simple as that and yet, according to the results of the ballot announced yesterday, our council workers just don’t get it.

They would rather hold out for more money and increase the wage bill than accept the gravity of the situation we are facing.

Three unions, the GMB, Unite and Unison have now all decided to reject a 1.5 per cent pay offer over three years. In the final ballot result, announced yesterday, Unison members rejected the pay off by 80 per cent to 20 per cent.

Interestingly, though, a total of 25,500 Unison members voted but 57,000 failed to respond. The union blamed the summer holidays for the low turnout but many of those members who didn’t bother to vote might regret that decision if the dispute escalates into industrial action by the autumn.

Instead of the 1.5 per cent on offer, Unison wants a one-year deal worth three per cent or £600, whichever is the greatest, plus a £7 minimum wage (the current level is £5.80 an hour except in Glasgow where it is £7).

Early forecasts suggest that meeting the unions’ demands would cost £100 million or at least 6,500 job cuts.

It is the job of a trade union to fight for better pay and conditions for its members. But there comes a time when any union has to weigh up the options and, faced with massive jobs losses or a pay rise, the unions have chosen the wrong one.

They wouldn’t accept that it is such a straight choice. They wouldn’t accept that there have to be job cuts. But they are wrong. There have to be job cuts and there will be job cuts. It is as simple and as brutal as that.

By holding out for more money, they are condemning more of their members to a future on the dole.

The argument that the unions have used to justify their demands for more money are based, in part, around the pay deals awarded to teachers and council chiefs.

Union officials have claimed that local authorities recently got a 2.5 per cent award and teachers got a 2.4 per cent rise.

They are right. These were wrong. They were totally unacceptable in the current climate and should never have been agreed. Even if they were part of long-term package agreements, those should have been torn up and thrown away. There is no way anybody in the public sector should be getting those sort of awards, particularly when those at the bottom are being offered very little.

But just because one set of awards was wrong doesn’t make it right for everybody else to believe they should get the same thing. That would make the situation even worse.

In England, a two-year public sector pay freeze is on its way. Those earning £21,000 or less will get an annual rise of £250. Everybody else will get nothing – which amounts to a real terms pay cut.

In Scotland, council workers were offered a better deal than that, one per cent this year followed by 0 per cent in 2011-12 and 0.5 per cent in 2012-13.

It obviously looked so paltry to Scotland’s council workers that they decided to reject it, despite the fact it is better than that offered to council workers in England and far better than many in the private sector – tens of thousands of whom have already lost their jobs in this recession and tens of thousands of others have had indefinite pay freezes (or even reductions) imposed by managers.

It really appears as if many council workers don’t know how good their pay and conditions are.

The last time I mentioned this, on that occasion to do with gold-plated public sector pensions, one public sector reader commented on the piece to say that he contributed a lot to his own pension: a whopping ten per cent.

Let me put that in perspective. If I, as someone self-employed in the private sector, want a pension, I have to pay for all of it. I have to contribute 100 per cent. Even when I was employed by a relatively generous private sector employer, I paid at least 50 per cent of my pension and often more. Ten per cent? Most people working in the private sector can’t even dream about such deals.

Public sector workers are now paid, on average, more than private sector employees. On average, they also enjoy more generous pension provision and more generous redundancy deals.

I don’t begrudge them these benefits, all I ask is that they recognise the advantages of the position they are in and, when asked to accept a minimal pay rise in times of absolute austerity, they should accept that they have to share some of the pain – alongside the private sector which has been suffering for the past two years.

One of the arguments that has been hammered around the public sector in the last couple of years has been this: “We didn’t cause the recession, the bankers did. Why should we have to suffer when it was all the fault of the bankers?”

Yes, the bankers did cause the recession but nobody is asking the public sector to suffer just for the bankers. The whole country is suffering, more than that, the private sector has taken such a huge hit over the past two years – just ask anyone in the construction industry – that is clear that everyone is suffering, everyone is being asked to shoulder a share of the pain.

What is wrong is to expect that one section of society should be exempt.

So, when it comes down to being offered a small pay deal which means a virtual pay cut, council workers should really think long and hard before rejecting it.

The alternative is job losses, tens of thousands of them.

Unison lead negotiator Dougie Black said yesterday: “Industrial action is one of a range of possible options we will be considering.”

Go ahead, take strike action, keep demanding unrealistic and ludicrously expensive pay deals: see what happens. You have already lost the support of the vast majority of ordinary those in the private sector, people who have either lost their jobs, been given pay freezes or endured pay cuts, people who have taken on extra, part-time jobs and cut back everywhere to make ends meet.

You have already lost their support and “you still don’t get it”.

Be my guest, vote for industrial action and I’ll see many, many more of you on the dole queues than would have been the case had you swallowed your pride and taken the sensible option.

Is there a trade unionist in the house? <em>Picture: Elsie esq.</em>

Is there a trade unionist in the house? Picture: Elsie esq.

By John Knox

The trade unions, if they have a mind to, could save us all from the midsummer madness about to the visited upon us in the Budget on Tuesday.

Like Dr Who, they could intervene from the future to save the patient from the 18th century apothecaries at Westminster who think that a bit of blood letting is the way to encourage the economy to stand up again and beginning running.

Instead they are promising us a summer and autumn of discontent. “They won’t know what hit them,” Dave Prentice told Unison’s annual conference, “if the government takes on public sector workers over cuts in services, pay and pensions. ”

What about jobs, Mr Prentice? The jobs of your members and others? You seem to have assumed, like everyone else, that government spending cuts have to mean jobs cuts and you are only going to defend the pay and conditions of those left in employment.

But spending cuts don’t have to mean job cuts. The same savings can be made by pay cuts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that a 5 per cent cut in public sector pay would save £5.5 billion, not far from the £6.2 billion the Chancellor is planning to save this year. If Irish-style pay cuts (of between 5 and 10 per cent), were made, up to £9 billion could be saved.

Here in Scotland, Professor David Bell of Stirling University estimated this week that Irish-style cuts would save £1 billion, a little more than the Scottish Government budget is expected to be cut.

If the unions would accept a similar pay cut, they could prevent any job losses happening at all. Everyone would win, or at least we would all weather the economic storm in better style. Public services would be maintained in a time of great need. The government would avoid a huge bill for redundancies and unemployment benefit. And the national debt would begin to be repaid.

There would also, of course, have to be an increase in pension contributions to fill the black hole in the pension funds. But we have, after all, suffered a 6 per cent drop in GDP due to the recession, so perhaps it is time we saw that reality reflected in our pay packets.

There is a growing realisation that public sector pay has increased unsustainably over the past few years. It’s risen three times faster than private sector pay, according to one report this week. And even, though the recession has not been caused by public sector workers – employees of the Financial Services Authority excepted – this would be a useful time to make an adjustment.

The Conservatives have an openly chainsaw policy on the public sector. In their fevered imagination they see it growing like a hedge of triffids and want to cut it back – except, curiously, in the NHS where costs, largely doctors’ and managers’ pay, have been soaring. They believe that private sector White Knights will come charging over the horizon to mop up the unemployment which they see as “a price worth paying” for a restructuring of the economy.

The trouble is no White Knights are in sight. Where, for instance, is the entrepreneurial spirit, and the funds, for the renewable energy industry which is said to be capable of creating thousands of new green jobs? Where is the investment in research or the leisure industries or the arts or low-carbon transport that are supposed to be the job creators of the future? It’s coming from the struggling public sector, not from private investors.

The Conservatives believe, quaintly, that all this will change when the national deficit is reduced. But it’s not easy to see why such investment opportunities will be sufficiently profitable then when they are not profitable now.

Belief, however, is belief.

Councils too have been hypnotised into believing that the only way of achieving “efficiencies” and budget reductions is by laying off staff. Ten of Scotland’s councils, we learnt this week, have definite plans to cut a total of 10,000 jobs between them over the next three years. Only Aberdeen, so far, has broached the idea of a pay freeze, never mind a pay reduction.

The problem, in Aberdeen’s case, is that the freeze applies more to women than to men, since many low paid women workers were due to have a pay rise under the equal pay laws. And in everyone’s case, a pay reduction will be seen as unfair so long as high earners continue to be overpaid, even after, say, a 5 per cent cut.

It was revealed this week that nearly 400 Scottish government civil servants are earning more than an MSP’s salary of £57,000. University principals are on £200,000. One estimate puts the number of public sector staff earning more than £100,000 a year at 2,000, including many doctors and local authority managers. If they were to take an average cut of, say £50,000 a year, that would save the taxpayer £100m. That would be a real efficiency saving, as opposed to the ones politicians talk about at the Mad Hatters Tea Party.

If the unions would negotiate a fairer pay structure – within an overall reduction – they would save us all a lot of bother from strikes, cuts in services, and a prolonged recession. They might even rediscover their socialism.

NHS Scotland logoThe Scottish Government has bowed to opposition pressure to publish workforce projections for the NHS in Scotland.

Publication is surrounded by huge caveats – the introduction explicitly says it has been done “in response to the Opposition Parliamentary Motion on the NHS” and warns that the information is not “quality assured”.

The main findings are an estimated reduction in whole time equivalent (WTE) staff members of 3,790 (2.8 per cent) by the end of the financial year 2010/11. Nursing and midwifery takes the biggest hit – 1,523 WTE, followed by administration services (1,053 WTE).

In an accompanying press release, health secretary Nicola Sturgeon repeats her guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies, and says that there will be more staff in the NHS at the end of this parliamentary term than at the start. She also says the quality of patient care is paramount.

She has also announced that a national scrutiny group will be formed, made up of the main health trade unions, NHS employers and the government, to scrutinise plans and “ensure they do not compromise the quality of care”.

“NHS boards are committed this year to securing more than £100 million in non-workforce related efficiency savings which will all be reinvested in frontline care. But the drive to deliver services more efficiently also involves looking at staffing requirements and these projections are part of that process.

“These figures are not set in stone. I expect boards to continue to try to minimise the reductions by working hard to maximise non-workforce related efficiencies.”

Unison expressed concern. Tam Waterson, Chair of UNISON Scotland’s Health Committee said: “We are concerned at the scale of these planned job cuts. The Scottish government’s commitment to ensure no compulsory redundancies is welcome, as is the involvement of unions in scrutiny of the health board plans. But it is clear that we face deep cuts which will impact on our vital health services.”

The union says that 1250 job cuts are planned for Greater Glasgow and Clyde this year, 700 in Lothian – with another 1,300 in the pipeline for next year. Tayside plans to 500 full time equivalent jobs. Grampian has announced 600 job cuts, and Highland plans to cut 100.

Unison adds that NHS Scotland requires to save £270 million in the current financial year to balance the books following a tight Scottish budget settlement in February – and warns that further pressure on funding is likely after the Westminster government implements its emergency budget in June.

RCN Scotland director Theresa Fyffe accused health boards of short-termism, saying that as the wage bill makes up 70 per cent of health board budgets, it had become the primary target for cuts.

“RCN Scotland fully recognises that health boards need to find ways to save money. However, in the interests of protecting standards in patient care, health boards must focus on the long-term needs of patients, rather than on short-term cuts to the workforce this year, which may cause costly problems in the future.”

Speaking ahead of today’s parliamentary debate on the cuts, she added: “Health boards are using a number of short-term measures to cut wage bills, ie not replacing someone if they leave, replacing registered nurses with unregistered nursing assistants or redeploying highly skilled and higher-paid specialist nurses to carry out regular ward shifts to cover staff shortages.

“If health boards across Scotland continue to pursue such cost cutting measures on the wage bill without properly carrying out service redesign and looking at other areas of cost pressures, they will be left with a demoralised and overstretched workforce and may risk standards in patient care. It would also make it difficult and more costly to redesign services to meet patient needs in the future as appropriately skilled nurses and other healthcare professionals may no longer be in the workforce, due to today’s short term cost-cutting measures.”

She said the RCN had agreed in principle to be part of the scrutiny group, but warned: “We will also be seeking assurances that health boards will only implement their workforce plans if they have first considered all the options available to them, not just short-term cuts to the workforce.”

The BMA has also confirmed it will be part of the scrutiny group. Scottish chairman Dr Brian Keighley said: “The NHS is currently running at full capacity where even small cuts to frontline services will have a direct impact on patient care. It is therefore essential that in reaching these decisions, NHS managers consult with healthcare professionals locally and value the medical leadership offered by doctors to reshape and develop services to make them more efficient without affecting the quality of patient care.

“As part of this national scrutiny group, the BMA will seek to ensure that decisions made by local NHS boards to make cuts will have a minimal impact on patient care and will maintain the high quality care services that our patients expect.”

The tables can be found on the Scottish Government website.