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Guide Managing under Pressure: Industrial Relations in Local Government

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Crucially, however, the package endorsed by the full council included the recommendation that:. A second dilemma related to uncertainty about the extent to which trade union members would be prepared to take industrial action in a national climate in which the necessity of austerity measures was constantly emphasised. Accommodating pay reductions was therefore considered, as a Unite representative explained:. And also that we wanted to look at some time-limited effect of their pay cuts, so at some point in the future we wanted the pay to be restored.

On both counts they refused to give any guarantees and these cuts were permanent. The Council faced local elections and the trade unions were campaigning for the Labour Party with an expectation that an incoming administration would soften some of the pay cuts. Extended and high-profile industrial action might generate short-term concessions, but could damage support for the Labour Party because of its link to the trade unions, jeopardising longer-term outcomes favourable to the workforce.

The upshot was protracted negotiations with the Council leadership, but a failure to resolve the dispute shifted the trade unions towards a three-pronged union strategy: selective strike action, a legal challenge related to alleged failure to provide the statutory consultation period for dismissals, and a political campaign to mobilise voters in local elections to remove the Conservative administration.

Introduction to Labour History

In particular in a national context in which pro-austerity frames were dominant, exemplified by employment reductions and a national pay freeze, and with limited alternative employment prospects, there was considerable uncertainty if union members would support industrial action that aimed to mobilise anti-austerity assumptions and arguments.

This was not a convincing mandate and trade union responses therefore concentrated on selective high-profile rolling industrial action by the most organised groups that would put the most pressure on the council. Unite and Unison tried to convert weakness into strength by not relying on the whole union membership to take strike action and ensuring that workers received strike pay to maintain their commitment to strike action. Action short of a strike included an overtime ban, working to contract, and a refusal by staff such as social workers to use their cars for council business.

Selective strike action by parking attendants hit council revenue but did not stop the provision of council services to residents. A Unite representative explained:. We wanted to select high profile and income generating services and take those people out for long periods of time. And we paid them their full pay once they were out. Coastal used section notices to dismiss and re-engage staff, requiring a 90 day period of statutory consultation. Trade unions argued that these requirements had not been followed and pursued an employment tribunal case.

If Coastal had lost the employment tribunal they faced the prospect of a large compensation bill for all employees that were dismissed and re-engaged in summer As a union official explained:. In subsequent local elections, a Labour administration was formed within Coastal and pledged a phased reversal of pay cuts. Since the s and s when strategic choice approaches were first applied to public services Kessler and Purcell, ab , public service restructuring has continued apace.

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These trends have been intensified by the global financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures with deep cuts in local government funding. In this altered context there has been considerable uncertainty about the scope for organisational level choice and the form that any such choices would take.

The value of these cases resides in their distinctiveness as identified by sector actors and the extent that they bring into sharp relief the application of strategic choice frameworks. The two case studies indicated distinctive strategies in responding to restructuring and austerity measures that belies the emphasis in many accounts of neo-liberal convergence towards similar policies of marketization and privatization.

This approach was facilitated by the alignment of the political and managerial leadership and the development of a carefully calibrated labour—management and reward strategy. Trade unions had misgivings about the downgrading of councillor involvement, the proposed local collective agreement and a tougher managerial stance, but in a context of a national pay freeze and the dominance of pro-austerity frames, trade unions acquiesced in this strategy and developed co-operative relations with the council leadership.

The establishment of the partnership payment compensated staff that had not received a national pay increase but also enhanced performance management. The council leadership placed less emphasis on gaining trade union support for its approach and there was limited incentive to pursue partnership approaches with a workforce that included many outsourced services. Trade unions faced limited support for prolonged strike action, but used selective strikes amongst the most organised workers and utilised anti—austerity frames.


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They portrayed the council leadership as pursuing an ideological, privatisation orientated approach, that contributed to pay cuts and which unfairly placed the burden of adjustment on the workforce. The effects of budgetary constraints and an era of austerity are clearly visible with similarities between the case studies in terms of large reductions in employment between Figure 1.

Nonetheless, each authority responded to budgetary restrictions in a distinctive way that was influenced by the specific legacy of in-house provision and political party traditions, but these legacies did not pre-determine the policies and practices pursued. In the case of Mid-Town services had always been provided in-house, but a weak financial and managerial legacy reinforced by budgetary cuts proved a springboard for a unified managerial and political leadership to redirect this legacy towards a more ambitious trading model and the recalibration of management union relations.

In Coastal there was a legacy of outsourcing and a new political leadership sought to extend outsourcing into a more encompassing form of commissioning authority in response to budgetary cuts. Despite decades of public sector restructuring, these findings suggest that employers have used the austerity crisis to build on this legacy, departing further from pre-existing practice in local government. In contrast to earlier studies that separate choice at organisational level from constraint at national level this article has emphasised the blending of choice and constraint that connects national and local level developments.

In analysing strategic choice institutional constraints and ideological narratives have been reframed as resources by local actors. By contrast, in Coastal the choice to outsource HR established local constraints on HR capacity and involvement that inhibited their ability to negotiate effectively with the workforce. Although austerity measures are widely conceived as associated with a neo-liberal ideology that favours market-based governance Blyth, ; Grimshaw, there has been little attempt to understand how ideology enables or constraints employer choice.

This article has focused on austerity as it relates to practice that draws on austerity as ideology, but recognises the scope for differentiated strategies. In Mid-Town the council leadership used pro-austerity frames sparingly but effectively to present workforce adjustments as necessary and inevitable and linked to government budgetary cuts that resulted in job losses and a pay freeze.

By contrast in Coastal austerity measures were attributed as much to the council leadership rather than stemming primarily from government policy, enabling anti-austerity frames to gain ground. Local trade unions were effective at portraying the council leadership as ideologically committed to shrinking the local state and punishing the workforce. The imposition of pay cuts, the dismissal and re-engagement of the workforce and limited attempts to resolve strike action reinforced the credibility of these anti-austerity frames.

Although there are some continuities with the past in terms of the maintenance of systems of national pay determination Colling, ; Kessler, our results indicate increased experimentation in altering terms and conditions on a local basis and shifts in union-management relations towards partnership or unilateralism. Local variations in core national conditions, such as reductions in sick pay or annual level, have been reported by many local authorities IDS, indicating a recalibration of the balance between national and local decision and an undermining of the regulatory influence of the local government national agreement, enhancing the scope for local strategic choice.

This was not the main focus of the article and we have concentrated on trade union policy and practice at organisational level. Our findings are equivocal about how far trade unions are adopting a strategic response to public sector restructuring and austerity measures; trade unions remain secondary organisations with responses conditioned by the approaches of their employer. This is not to suggest that trade unions have no scope for choice as the decision to accommodate or confront management in the two cases illustrates, but this process is better characterised as strategic incrementalism Fairbrother, , p.


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  • Constraints can be enabling for employers and these constraints extend beyond much discussed frameworks such as national pay determination to include ideologies of austerity that are marshalled by local actors to advance their strategies. Ascher, K. Bach, S. Beszter, P. Blyth, M. Boxall, P. Brunnson, N.

    Equal pay row ups pressure on council industrial relations - Personnel Today

    Burton, M. Child, J. Colling, T. Crouch, C. Culpepper, P. De Turberville, S. Fairbrother, P. Forth, J. Gall, G. Grimshaw, D. Heery, E.

    Managing under pressure : industrial relations in local government

    Hrebiniak, L. Hyman, R. Johnstone, S. Katz, H. Kelly, J. Kessler, I. Laffin, M. Local Government Association. Marchington, M. McCann, L. NAO, Local government new burdens. Offe, C. ONS, Public Sector Employment , December Office for National Statistics, London.

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