17 June 2013

A Trade Unionist and Green Talking About Brighton

I am a member of a trade union. I work and campaign with other trade unionists. What do I say about Brighton and Hove and the dispute between the council and GMB when I'm asked? I had one of those conversations with two trade unionists in Liverpool on Thursday.

Firstly, a key point for all Greens to recognise. The GMB are there to represent their members. If even one member is set to lose out they would do that - what would be the point of a trade union if they didn’t fight for the pay and conditions of members? Their job is to stand up for their workers. The nine Green councillors and Caroline Lucas, Brighton Pavilion’s MP, who joined them on the picket line, recognise that.

Secondly, a key point for Trade Unionists. The Greens on the council who are not on the picket line are not “Tories in disguise”. Brighton and Hove council have introduced a living wage. The whole group tried to get through a 3.5% council tax increase in 2012, which was voted down by the Conservatives and Labour joining forces on the council. If that had not happened, there would be an extra £3.6 million in the budget right now - in this financial year – money that would potentially mean it would be easier to deal with this crisis.

Thirdly, we as Greens have to acknowledge that our usual approach to politics has gone badly wrong. From the ill judged comment about the “winter of discontent” to the continued darkening relations and frustration on both sides, we have handled this situation poorly. There seems to be paralysis at a national level too, with reports that GPEx were not even going to discuss this item, which is absurd given that it is the biggest political crisis we’ve ever had to tackle.

Finally, there is no easy solution to this. If you take a position that the council are 100% right and that there is no alternative to the current proposals, then you ignore the very real fears of someone who faces a loss in take home pay of up to £4000. I couldn’t afford that for my family. Even a cut of £1000 would make our monthly budget very difficult to manage. So the GMB members in Brighton and Hove have my support as they seek to protect their income. Equally, if you take the position that the easy solution is to uprate every single person affected by the single status legislation, then you are showing no understanding of the incredibly difficult situation the Brighton and Hove council has financially. There is little if any spare money. There are potentially liabilities if single status is not resolved that could result in legal action and the kind of outcome that means Labour run Birmingham City Council will be paying out £890 million.

So a solution can’t be easily achieved. The council is in between a rock and a hard place. If there was additional money available I have no doubt that every one of the 21 sitting Green councillors would vote through a pay rise that uprated everyone. There are good points raised by the striking workers about executive pay in Brighton and Hove, which I agree with, but these do not alone identify where sufficient money could come from. Criticisms of the Green administration from within and outside the party are many, but solutions are few.

There are some key principles that from the outside I’d suggest we return to:

- A commitment that no one will see the amount of money they receive into their account each week or month reduced

- Transparency with figures because right now there is no clarity about who is losing how much and when. We need the outside world to understand how complex the current systems are and what is trying to be resolved under single status

- A long term solution to this problem. If the money is not available now then it needs to be planned for and accounted for over 6 to 10 years into the future to make any settlement affordable

Now I’ve previously written to both the national and local party stating clearly that a pay rise that brings everyone up is ideally the solution. But if we can’t get the money now, we need to at least ensure that no one has less to live on and if required money is loaned to them to prevent that happening. I'd also want us to accept the principle that we want to uprate pay for all so there is no detriment - even if it takes pay increases over a number of years to make the uprating work. It appears that under single status loans could be used to bridge the gap to prevent anyone suddenly finding that they have less money per month to live on while over a period of time this sorted out. I of course find this frustrating as a trade unionist, and my own internal voice shouts “pay not loans”, but again where do we find the money now?

So rather than look at individual loans, can Brighton and Hove council find a legal route to take on a “mortgage” to pay for a non-detrimental settlement? That might be possible but it may need more than just the Green Party to make it happen. Right now we hold 21 out of 53 councillors in Brighton and Hove, with one byelection campaign taking place over the coming weeks.

The Greens and Labour together are likely to continue to hold a majority of seats beyond 2015. Any longer term solution would require both parties to commit to a programme of council tax rises and pay rises to make an affordable settlement possible, and to enable GMB members and residents to have the confidence that this issue is resolved. We need to show willing to negotiate a better deal but I think we need the GMB to bring Labour to the table too. Without both parties signing up there may be no viable solution. At the moment I think it is fair to say that the GMB has no confidence in the administration, relations are antagonistic and we are a long way away from resolution and a combination of the Greens and Labour taking a united path forward, and avoiding this dispute being used as a political football, would build enough confidence.

The thorny problem of single status has been avoided by previous councils and the Greens are clearing up the mess. To go forward we need to be able to show that we can come up with solutions, even in difficult circumstances. However I disagree fundamentally with those that argue that we should not be in administration of a council, even during a cuts period. Talks are ongoing and I really hope that we can get an agreement soon. I'm sure every option will get discussed.

There will come a time nationally, where the excesses and costs of nuclear power clean up, the decommissioning of Trident and the decarbonisation of our economy will be the challenges that Greens in government will face. If we turn away now from difficult decisions and if we can’t resolve this dispute, it makes it very difficult to persuade people that we can deal with the bigger issues without first showing that we can run a council.

The circumstances for us are not great. A minority administration during a period of austerity is an awful time for us to get our first Green administration, but there has been lots to admire in the first two years up until this dispute. But this is the challenge of being in administration. We must get back to the key principles I've outlined above and move forward.

1 comment:

John Coyne said...

The idea of loans to cover pay reduction shows compassion, but actually the original offer from the council was better than that.

The offer contained three years' compensation as a lump sum - not just "protected pay" which is a more usual mitigation for pay scale reduction.
Negotiations had always entertained the possibility of increasing the compensation and that may well have happened under the new offer. The new offer may also contain opportunities for workers to get new skills or responsibilities and thus justify a higher position in the pay structure - without that improvement having to be applied the the whole workforce.

One point widely misunderstood about this dispute is that allowing the refuse workers to keep their current allowance would create a catastrophic hole in the council's budget. Massive extra cuts in services and compulsory redundancies would follow.

Some of the Green Party criticism of the Brighton & Hove council group fails to come to terms with that dilemma. Some of us can't see past the principle that it's always wrong to cut the pay of low paid workers.

It is indeed a very bad thing to do that. No question. But the alternative of spreading a pay increase across the 8,000 council workforce, to level-up, would create something that is even worse.

A test of a responsible council is whether it can face up to a forced choice between unacceptable options and pick the one that causes least harm.

The (majority of) the Green council group in Brighton and Hove have passed that test, in my opinion.

The other point I'd make, as a Green councillor, is that councillors should seek to be fair to the unions but councillors always have to act in the interests of the people they represent. They have to apply the revenue and the assets they control only in the public interest and not use them to save the Green Party any discomfort. As an employer, they have to be willing to hold up the employer's side.