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.