Council workers vote to strike for 'decent' rise

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The Independent Online

The summering conflict between the Government and the unions over public-sector pay flared up again yesterday, as local government workers voted 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of a strike. The ballot involved members of the Unison public sector union. The council workers will take "sustained" industrial action. Dave Prentis, the union's general secretary, said: "This is a solid vote for action and a clear message to the local government employers that our members are willing to fight for a decent pay rise."

Local council workers who belong to Unite, formerly the T&G and Amicus, have also been balloted and the result t of their poll is due today. Unite sources expect a "yes" vote. Like Mr Prentis, Derek Simpson, the joint leader of Unite, which is Britain's biggest trade union, has rejected ministerial calls for pay restraint and the Chancellor's suggestion of pay rises below inflation.

Mr Simpson said: "Yes, we face economic problems. But it is not trade union members and the low paid who should carry the can for them. The finance industry was left to its own devices and displayed such staggering irresponsibility that we are now experiencing a world economic crisis."

More disputes may be on the way. Unions representing 250,000 staff at further education colleges resume talks with ministers tomorrow, while the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is planning a strike ballot of 280,000 members in the civil service. Unison has also indicated that its three-year pay deal in the NHS can, under the agreement, be reopened if inflation continues to soar.

The Incomes Data Services (IDS) pay research group has reported that some companies are having to offer workers on two- or three-year deals a "pay kicker" to offset rapid increases in the cost of living.

Emboldened by the Shell tanker drivers' 14 per cent pay rise over two years, the unions seem in no mood to heed the veiled threat form the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, that higher pay demands might prompt interest rate increases to prevent an inflationary psychology once again becoming embedded in the labour market.

So far pay settlements have mostly stayed in the 3 to 4 per cent range, which ha s been viewed in the past with equanimity by the Bank – it once suggested that annual pay growth of about 4.5 per cent was consistent with reaching the 2 per cent inflation target. But inflation is "likely", according to the Bank, to be roughly twice that level for at least part of the next year.

Should the unions succeed in reopening existing deals and in driving new settlements higher it will have severe consequences for the public finances, already close to breaking the Government's fiscal rules. The public-sector pay bill was about £170bn last year, representing a third of all government expenditure. Pay and the numbers employed in the public sector have risen markedly since 1997.

Looming disputes

*College staff

Unions representing 250,000 staff at further education colleges in England have rejected a 3 per cent pay offer and want 6 per cent. Talks continue.

*Civil service

The Public and Commercial Services Union is to ballot 280,000 civil servants on strikes that could affect departments including Work and Pensions, the Home Office and Defra. Claims vary but all are for deals above ministers' 2 per cent cap.

*Fire service

The Fire Brigade Union has threatened industrial action if pay talks next month are not concluded to their satisfaction.

*Police

The Police Federation has begun talks for 2008-09 with the Police Negotiating Board. Officials have threatened to lobby for full industrial rights for 140,000 members if the Government does not agree to binding arbitration in future pay.

*Teachers

Classroom assistants and support staff have voted for strike action after being offered pay rises of 2.45 per cent. Teachers' pay negotiations due to being in September are also likely to be tough.

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