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Public Services Management: A rational response in Unison: Alan Jinkinson, Nalgo's leader, is set to head what will be Britain's largest trade union. He describes the challenges ahead to Paul Gosling

ALAN JINKINSON has rapidly become the most powerful public sector trade unionist in Britain. Not only has he been general secretary of Nalgo (National and Local Government Officers' Association) since 1990, but next year he is due to become head of the new Unison organisation of 1.4 million public sector workers, the largest union in the country.

Political posturing is not in the character of Mr Jinkinson, who carefully weighs up each comment before making it, avoiding remarks that will upset any faction within the union, or which can be interpreted as favouring militancy. This balancing act is on display when he stresses that a public sector pay freeze, or award at less than the rate of inflation, would be met by a 'measured response', while hinting that some of the more militant members of the union could become difficult to restrain from taking strong action.

Mr Jinkinson does, though, concede that stringent public sector pay control is a very real possibility. 'There appears to be a conspiracy between the bosses and the Government to attack public sector pay over the next 12 months.'

He is clearly angered by some of the rumours that came out of Conservative Party conference. 'Allegedly, an unnamed minister said that it would be nice to have a Nalgo strike. That is provocative, irresponsible and does nothing for good industrial relations.' He stresses that Nalgo and the other public service unions would respond with restraint. 'That kind of view will not force Nalgo or anyone else out on to the streets.'

Nalgo and the other leading public sector unions Nupe and Cohse have been in merger discussions for several years and, subject to a ballot of members of all three unions in November and December, the new union Unison will be in place next July. Mr Jinkinson is to be the general secretary until early 1996, when Rodney Bickerstaffe, currently of Nupe, is expected to take over.

Mr Jinkinson stressed that the unions would not co-operate in any exercise designed to cut the real wages of public services staff. 'It is said that it is time for public sector workers to take their share of the pain of the economy, but the truth is that public sector workers have been taking more than their share of the pain for some years now. Take the NHS trust hospitals as an example. The pay of senior managers has increased enormously, in contrast to the pay of clerical and administration workers, which has fallen in net earnings by about 5.2 per cent. The best part of 100,000 of these workers are paid below the European Community minimum decency threshold of pounds 207 per week.

'The response of our members to pay policy will very much depend on that key word 'fairness'. The fairer any policy is perceived to be the more measured any response will be. There are about 6 million in the public sector workforce, some of these covered by review bodies. If it was perceived that those covered by review bodies were treated better, the reaction would be very hostile indeed. Those not covered in the NHS already need an increase of 25 per cent to bring them up to comparative levels.'

Mr Jinkinson does not see it as his role to help the Government in bringing about its revolution in public sector culture. 'I don't like CCT (compulsory competitive tendering), or all the talk about an 'enabling' local authority. We've got these citizen's charters by the sackful, but they will not succeed until the public sector workforce is well-paid, well-managed and well-trained.

As well as merging into one giant union, the public service unions are also coping with the transfer of their members away from public employers into the private sector; whether into an NHS trust, a private company winning service contracts, or as employees of a large privatised corporation such as British Gas. Even within the local authority sector there is a strong move away from national pay bargaining towards local negotiation. According to Mr Jinkinson, such changes, though they pose threats, also provide opportunities.

'It has been an inevitable stimulus to Nalgo to adjust its delivery of services to its members. One or two people join a trade union for political reasons, but for most people it is a practical question of the value of the benefits at the workplace. We have had to adjust our ways of delivering services and train many hundreds of stewards that are now involved in local bargaining. The trend is towards devolution of provision of support services to district level. Unison is a catalyst to an even more radical approach to service delivery, which will be member-centred, a member-led union, serving all, from the highest-paid manager to the lowest-paid individual.'

In any case, Mr Jinkinson predicts, national pay agreements are not dead yet, and will become more common in the future. 'Local pay bargaining has lost its popularity. It was in better economic times that it was introduced. I wouldn't be surprised if the circle is completed, and some of those employers that have opted out return again to the national pay arena.'

One challenge facing Unison is persuading blue-collar and white-collar workers that they have a shared outlook. Tension between Nalgo members and other public sector workers has heightened in recent years as managers have overseen the contracting out of manual work. Now the boot is on the other foot, with Nalgo members facing commercial competition for their own jobs. Mr Jinkinson is adamant that the contracting out of work must not be used as a means of reducing rates of pay, and that members should resist pay levels being cut to make tender bids more competitive. 'We say to our branches, 'talk to your employers, get them to open their books, get into a rational dialogue, and get the best deal available, which is also the best deal for service quality and the local community.' We want to encourage the authorities to put in the most competitive bids, but there shouldn't be cuts in pay to bring this about.'

Even though the change in public service culture is bitterly resented and opposed by the public sector unions, they are making parallel changes. Local authorities are recognising that many of their powers have gone, so they adopt a new role of community voice and vehicle for lobbying. Similarly, Mr Jinkinson sees Unison as a means of bringing about broader change in society.

He explained: 'A union of 1.4 million people will have enormous influence in society at large, including the European Community, as a driving force for a return to a public sector culture, which very many members of the public now yearn for, especially over the last few days. What is needed is increased public spending on housing, schools, sewers, and so on. What we don't need is to bear down on public sector spending. What is missing in the economy is that indefinable thing called 'confidence'. Cuts in public spending will bring a further twist to the deflationary spiral, and that is the opposite to what the economy needs at the present time.'

(Photograph omitted)