The ‘Single Status’ scandal

Local government

The ‘Single Status’ scandal

TENS OF thousands of local government workers are up in arms as the results of the single status new pay and grading scheme are rolled out by their employers.

Bill Mullins

With no government funding and estimated to cost the local government employers £5 billion, the employers are seeking to claw back every pound out of the pockets of workers’ wages and conditions. Some workers have already taken strike action against the downgrading of their jobs and cuts in pay. Others are turning to “no win-no fee” lawyers to get full back pay when their jobs have been upgraded.

The single status agreement between the local government employers and the unions was made ten years ago. Its terms mean that by April 2007, all council workers should have had their jobs evaluated and councils have to implement an “equality proofed” pay and grading system.

Wage cuts

As the date approaches, many are finding that the scheme is being used to cut their wages. This is particularly the case with male manual workers who have traditionally been forced to earn their wages through various bonus schemes.

In many cases these are now being declared unlawful and are being removed, leading to pay cuts. However, increasingly women workers are now facing pay cuts.

As a way of clawing back money, councils are also launching an attack on national agreements covering overtime and shift allowances.

Some union officials have tried to justify the single status deal as just equalising the pay rates between men and women. If this means that many (male) workers take a pay cut, it’s “all in a good cause”.

Under the old scheme, workers were often afforded pay protection if they were downgraded. This is now increasingly outlawed under the guise of equality with many now told they can only have two years’ pay protection.

However in Glasgow, the employers were forced by the threat of strike action to extend pay protection for those who would lose out. They were forced to do this because the whole workforce was prepared to take strike action for the 16% who would have lost out.

At the time of writing the UNISON national leadership is refusing to endorse this agreement because it extends protection beyond the two years and they believe it to be unlawful.

The whole single status agreement is now a major headache for the union leadership, who sold it originally as “an historic deal for the low-paid”.

“No win-no fee” lawyers stepped into the arena when it was revealed that some local agreements limited back pay to workers who were shown under the job evaluation scheme to have been discriminated against on the grounds of gender.

Under the equal pay legislation, workers are entitled to get up to six years’ back pay when it has been shown that their pay was kept artificially low. This has led some workers taking the employers (and the unions) to court and winning compensation.

In 1997, UNISON’s leadership sold the agreement at a special delegate conference with the line that “everybody was a winner”. Socialist Party members in UNISON led the main opposition to the deal at the conference, achieving a vote of 45% against. (See box below)

This so incensed the leadership that they launched a ferocious political witch-hunt against the Campaign for a Fighting and Democratic UNISON (CFDU), which was the main organisation of the left in the union at that time.

The CFDU was outlawed and branches were forbidden to support it. Now recent events demonstrate how correct the supporters of the CFDU and the Socialist Party in particular, were.

What lies behind this is the unwillingness of the government to finance local government properly – including the new equal pay arrangements introduced by the single status deal.

Unfortunately the intervention of “no win-no fee” lawyers is not the way forward. History demonstrates that only mass collective struggle will achieve an end to low pay and discrimination. The trade unions should organise action to force the government to properly fund single status.

We call for

  • The government to fund the full implementation of single status.
  • For the return to genuine national agreements.
  • Opposition to cuts in pay and conditions of any worker under the single status agreement.
  • For full union backing for branches’ right to strike to defend pay and conditions of all workers.