Local government workers strike over pay

In July 2002, local government workers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland mounted a one-day strike in pursuit of a 6% pay increase. The stoppage was the first national strike in local government since the so-called 'winter of discontent' in 1978-9.

On 17 July 2002, local government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland took part in a one-day strike in pursuit of a 6% pay increase. Picket lines were set up outside council premises and marches and rallies were held in towns and cities across the country. The strike affected a wide range of local government services, including social services, leisure services, libraries, environmental health and refuse collection. The stoppage was the first national strike in local government since the so-called 'winter of discontent' in 1978-9.

The employees - members of UNISON, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and GMB- had previously rejected a 3% pay offer by the local government employers and voted in favour of strike action in a ballot. The three unions claimed strong support for the industrial action both from their members and the public. According to the unions, some 750,000 employees took part in the strike, but the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government said that support for the stoppage was 'patchy' and that many council services were 'largely untouched'.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB, said: 'There is a very big problem of low pay in local government. Over a quarter of a million people, many of them women, are earning less than GBP 5.00 an hour. Local authorities have got to show some responsibility to their staff and they should resume negotiations.'

The Employers’ Organisation for Local Government said that their 3% offer was 'fair and reasonable' and represented the 'going rate' in the economy as a whole. It was, moreover, 'all that the vast majority of authorities can afford': the unions’ claim could not be met without substantial job losses and cuts in services. 'Striking [would] not affect the position or result in an improved offer'.

The UK government said that it would not intervene in the dispute, and that the pay negotiations were entirely a matter for the local authorities and the unions.

After the 17 July stoppage, the three unions announced that they would stage a second day of national strike action on 14 August, followed by selective industrial action by key groups of workers, and that a third national strike was also being planned for September.

In a statement issued on 25 July, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) expressed strong support for the three unions involved, and called on the local government employers to 'return to negotiations and settle this damaging dispute urgently'. The TUC said it would continue to press the government 'to accept that they too have a responsibility to bring the dispute to a successful conclusion'.

Talks aimed at settling the dispute took place at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) on 26 April but were inconclusive. Before these talks, the employers’ negotiators were reported to be prepared to offer a minimum hourly rate of GBP 5.00 as part of a longer-term deal. However, following the meeting, the union negotiators said the employers’ 'much-publicised GBP 5.00 proved to be spin not substance' and called on the government to intervene.

Talks between the two sides resumed at ACAS on 2 August. Press reports suggested that the local authority employers were prepared to offer the unions a package worth 10% over a three-year period, including special arrangements to help the lowest paid grades of employees.

The government is seeking similar long-term pay deals with other key groups of public sector workers including teachers (UK0203102F) and National Health Service staff (UK0201172F) in an effort to link pay with its three-year investment plans.

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