In the midst of long-running negotiations over a council cuts plan, in which 300 jobs are threatened and some workers could lose up to 20% of their income, Plymouth City Council has de-recognised the public sector Unison, leaving 1,500 council employees (80% of whom are women) voiceless as the council seeks to impose its new pay plans.
The council's plans are extensive and include cuts to annual leave, the abolition of unsociable hours payments and a reduction of maternity and paternity rights to the statutory minimum. The council initially wanted to extend the working week to Monday-Saturday (6am-8pm) but were forced to climbdown after unions refused to negotiate while proposals relating to nationally-negotiated terms and conditions such as sick pay, the working week and basic salary were included in the council's plans. (For a comprehensive exposition of the council's proposals, see here.) The council has also publicly threatened to cut 300 jobs.
The three unions organising at the council (Unison, Unite and the GMB) balloted on the council's proposals in March. Unison members narrowly voted to accept, but GMB and Unite members rejected the bosses' plan. As a consequence slight changes were made to the cuts package and the unions went back into negotiation. Unison reassessed the offer and, after its legal department warned that recommending acceptance of an offer which disproportionately impacted against low-paid women workers could result in legal action being taken against the union, it recommended a no vote to its members. The council's response was to summarily de-recognise Unison. While it is claiming GMB and Unite are now on board with its latest proposals, both unions are seeking withdrawal of their signatures from the new deal. Unison's Regional Secretary Joanne Kaye said in a letter to members: "Our concerns are not just technical, they are about the actual human impact of an agreement that potentially discriminates against mainly women."
The unilateral de-recognition of a 1,500-strong union in a public sector workplace marks an alarming new turn in class struggle in local government. 2010 saw local authorities in Neath & Port Talbot, Birmingham and Walsall all use loopholes in employment legislation to impose cuts packages on their workforces by threatening mass redundancies. The London Fire Authority used a similar tactic and was eventually forced into some concessions by strike action by the Fire Brigades Union. Using the threat of mass redundancy, effectively forcing unions to negotiate at gunpoint and entirely on the bosses' terms, was a way of undermining and shortcutting around collective bargaining agreements and became the default tactic for any local government management looking to make cuts. Unless Plymouth City Council is defeated, then simply ripping up union recognition agreements altogether could become the new go-to measure for public sector bosses looking for a quick and easy way to ram through cuts.
125 miles east along the south coast, council workers in Southampton have recently voted overwhelmingly to continue their battle with a Tory council attempting to force through significant cuts to pay and conditions. If Southampton and Plymouth are anything to go by, then it seems public sector bosses in Britain are taking lessons from their counterparts in Wisconsin, USA and deciding that straightforward union busting is the easiest way to bludgeon their employees into accepting cuts. They must not be allowed to get away with it.