Focus: Two million unsung public sector workers are preparing to demand better pay and conditions

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A pay increase of up to 11 per cent for nurses to be announced tomorrow will create as many problems for the Government as it solves. Lining up behind the nurses are another two million public servants who believe they are unsung, undervalued and underpaid.

Apart from the medical staff covered by the relatively privileged pay review system there are another 250,000 NHS employees whose wages, superficially at least, are still subject to the old adversarial bear pit of negotiation. They will expect the same treatment as the nurses received.

Ambulance personnel, laboratory technicians, administrative staff, porters and cleaners will also feel they need a substantial pay rise for the "angelic" duties they are sometimes called upon to perform. Last week their union Unison registered a claim for a 10 per cent increase, or pounds 1,000, whichever is greater. While union officials privately realise the impracticality of such a demand, they argue that their members have fallen substantially behind comparable staff in the private sector and are about to be forgotten in the rush to reward more "glamorous" employees.

There are other people in mundane but critical professions who will ensure that the pressure is kept up on the Government. On Tuesday ministers will face the first national strike by a group of public servants since Labour came to power. More than 1,000 meat inspectors at the nation's 400 abattoirs are due to walk out for 24 hours. It is a stoppage which may concentrate ministerial minds because it could affect meat supplies to supermarkets. Their union - Unison - is claiming a five per cent rise, or pounds 650, although it has registered its preparedness to accept the 4.7 per cent paid to other staff which come under the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. The dispute is a year old and the union has yet to put in this year's claim. Whitehall has been warned that strikes of up to three days are being planned.

Meanwhile, representatives of 7,500 London Underground employees will meet management on Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to avert industrial action which could also include stoppages of up to three days. While the RMT union is claiming that the dispute is over job security at a time when the network is being partially privatised, management argues that costly claims for a reduction in working time are also included. And on Friday local authorities will respond to a pay claim from the biggest group of public servants of all. Leaders of 1.4 million council workers have claimed 5 per cent, or pounds 500.

Employees' representatives assert that the Government's decisions tomorrow, based on pay review body recommendations, will have considerable impact on the aspirations of local authority staff. While care workers in residential homes are often "unqualified" for instance, they will expect an inflation- plus settlement in acknowledgement of their contribution.

Union officials believe that while last year their members accepted the Government had not got its feet under the table, now they are expecting a gesture of support. There are indications that some groups of workers - male white-collar staff are mentioned - are ready to take industrial action unless their concerns are addressed.

Towards the end of the year there is also likely to be a substantial blip in wage inflation. Nurses' leaders are demanding a pounds 500 premium for working next New Year's Eve and pounds 250 for coming in the day after. Other public servants will also be expecting a bonus for the new millennium. More importantly, from the Government's point of view, are the aspirations of public servants thereafter - and the growing feeling that workers are prepared to vote with their feet.

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