Big union deal offers Blair hope of public sector peace

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The Independent Online
One of the biggest union deals in the history of British industrial relations could grant an incoming Labour government industrial peace among 1.5 million public sector workers.

The historic agreement, which attempts to abolish the occupational apartheid between men and women, and white collar and manual employees, is set to be signed next month on behalf of local authorities throughout the country.

The "single status" deal follows 18 months of negotiations and Labour's assertion that it would stick to the present strict financial targets in the public sector. Many observers predicted that a Blair administration would face strikes by workers whose aspirations had been raised. This pact could buy industrial peace for two, or even three, years in a large chunk of the state sector.

Among the main concessions from management is the introduction of a 37- hour week for blue collar workers in 1999 - 36 hours in London, when unions hope a Labour government will countenance extra funding for the public sector. The clause on hours would bring the working time of manual employees into line with office personnel.

Unions and management expect the accord to be signed on 10 March, when an annual pay offer, possibly matching the present inflation rate of 2.8 per cent, will be tabled. Such an offer would take the pounds 3.82-per-hour "national minimum wage" of council workers above the TUC's bargaining target of pounds 4.

The three main unions involved, Unison, the Transport & General and the GMB, are entering into a "social partnership" with the national bodies representing councils, which aims to improve the quality of work and the flexibility with which it is undertaken. Under the the accord there will be one pay "spine" for staff and manual workers and one national negotiating table for all employees, instead of two.

Councils will be able to decide where individual grades fit on the national wage scale. Unions have, therefore, agreed to potentially large variations in the wages paid for any particular grade.

The drive to equalise the pay and conditions of men and women has been forced on the three associations representing county, district and metropolitan authorities by legal action and the threat of more to come. Unions will drop thousands of industrial tribunal cases as a result of the agreement.

As part of the framework, councils will evaluate jobs to ensure those of "equal value" will carry the same pay and conditions. Part-time women workers will be among the beneficiaries. Senior Labour Party figures are making concerted efforts to avert the complete shutdown of the London Underground system by electricity supply engineers protesting over plans to remove them from the company's pension scheme. Labour is anxious there should not be industrial unrest in the run-up to the election which draw attention to its links with unions.