'Unsung heroes'

On May the Fourth – Star Wars Day – Unite sends ‘the force’ to all council workers in their continued fight for fair pay

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On May the Fourth – Star Wars Day – Unite sends ‘the force’ to all council workers in their continued fight for fair pay.

Alongside NHS and other key workers, council workers have been at the very frontline of the pandemic, working flat-out at great personal risk to themselves to serve the public in a time of unprecedented crisis.

Earlier this year, Unite and sister unions put in a pay claim to the Local Government Association, the employers’ association which governs council workers’ pay. Together the unions are demanding a pay rise of at least 10 per cent for all council workers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

On the eve of local elections on May 6,  after which the pay claim will be considered, Unite continues to pile on the pressure on the employers and highlights just how vital it is that our council workers are properly rewarded.

‘It was a total nightmare’

UniteLive caught up with council worker and Unite rep Bridie McCreesh, who works in the finance department for Newry, Mourne and Down district council in Northern Ireland. She explained just how difficult the last year has been for her and her colleagues.

“It was a horrendous because most of the workers are frontline workers who were out working throughout the pandemic,” she said. “We were playing it by ear initially and just waiting on daily reports that were coming from the government as to what was safe and what wasn’t safe.

“Some staff were furloughed, others were asked to work in different departments, which really put them outside their comfort zone. We were getting abuse from members of the public. We were working round the clock. It was a total nightmare.”

In December and January, Newry, Mourne and Down district council workers took strike action at the height of the second wave of the pandemic in a dispute over long-standing pay equality issues that arose after a council merger in 2015.

“On one side of the district, workers were doing the same job as another but were working on far less money,” Bride explained. “The council refused to address these issues for years so we’d had enough and decided to take strike action.”

Although the striking council workers won their dispute in a resounding victory that addressed pay inequality and other issues, it took a massive toll on the workers.

“What with the strike action alongside the pressures of the pandemic, my stress levels were through the roof,” Bridie recalled.

Bridie says all that she and other local government workers want is some recognition and reward for all they’ve done – both before and throughout the pandemic

“We’re always the last ones thought of,” she said. “People think that council workers don’t deserve anything and that we’re paid enough. But we are actually the lowest paid in the whole public sector.

“And we’re cradle to the grave – we register you when you are born and we register you when you die and provide services for everything in between,” Bridie added. “We don’t stop because we can’t stop – the public relies on us to keep everything going. We were the ones who carried the region and the wider UK throughout the pandemic. For the government to turn around and say, no we don’t think you did – it’s a kick in the teeth.”

‘We just want some recognition and reward’

Unite rep and electrician Mark Pratt, who works on a Leeds City Council contract for Mears, a housing and social care provider, agreed.

“All the social services that are provided through our local authorities are an absolute necessity, from emptying your bins to providing care in the community,” Mark told UniteLive. “The pandemic has highlighted their importance more than ever.”

As an electrician, he explained how he and his colleagues provided emergency services in residents’ homes throughout the pandemic.

“Since we were doing emergency work, we still had to attend even if residents had Covid,” Mark noted. “We’ve really gone above and beyond to serve the public and it’s such a disappointment while carrying out these duties to see that we aren’t valued.”

Mark said he was especially disappointed with the government’s rhetoric last year which justified a pay freeze for public sector workers because of the many job losses and pay cuts in the private sector.

“I think it’s important that all workers are valued, no matter which sector you’re in,” he said. “We shouldn’t be playing off private sector workers against public sector workers as the government has tried to do. The government said ‘nobody else has got a pay rise, businesses have gone to the wall so why should public sector workers get a pay rise?’ It’s divisive and it fails to recognise the hard work that so many people have put in to see us through this crisis.”

 Mark added that he hopes the pandemic opens people’s eyes to the systemic change we need.

“I think this whole crisis has highlighted the importance of having proper investment in local communities that have been historically underfunded,” he said. “And along with that investment – investment that isn’t siphoned off as profit to benefit private companies but is actually spent on the community – we need proper pay and training. We turn up, day in and day out, providing services for the community and we just want some recognition and reward – we don’t want to be the best paid in the country; we just want some recognition.”

‘Council workers have sustained our communities’

Unite national officer for local government Jim Kennedy said local authority workers’ pay must be at the top of the agenda in the upcoming local elections on May 6.

“All those seeking election on Thursday should publicly state beforehand that they recognise the essential work carried out by local authority workers and make a commitment to campaign, if elected, to ensure that they receive a substantial pay rise,” he said.

“For too long, council workers have borne the brunt of the Tories’ funding onslaught on local government since 2010 – they have been treated with contempt by successive Tory prime ministers – Cameron, May and Johnson,” Kennedy added. “We’ve still got two pay bands below the Living Wage which is an absolute disgrace.

“Yet it has been our council workers that have sustained our communities across the land over the last year, and sadly, many have died in the line of duty during the pandemic.

“These unsung heroes of public service have kept our streets clean, cared for our elderly and vulnerable, and looked after our young in the most difficult, and sometimes tragic, circumstance,” he went on to say.

 “While the public fully recognise and appreciate the dedication given to our communities by hundreds of thousands of local authority workers, this generosity of spirit is not reciprocated by the cold-hearted and tight-fisted Local Government Association whose agenda is stuck in a mind-set of continuing to pay poverty wages.

“Now is the time for those that aspire to public office – whether as mayors, police and crime commissioners, or as county and district councillors – to pledge that a much-deserved pay rise for council staff moves centre stage politically.”

By Hajera Blagg

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