Public sector strikes: A different approach is needed

Jim Savege, corporate director of HR and oganisational development and lead on pay at the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), looks at how a different approach could avoid future public sector strike action.

The public sector strike action will have an effect on front-line services, despite the predicted low turnout. This is the last thing that most people want to have to deal with amid the growing pressures that the credit crunch and economic downturn are bringing.

Public sector employers have struggled to reach settlements with the trade unions concerned about the impact of the rising cost of living and widening pay gap between private and public sector. So where is Unison going with the national industrial action, which only 13% of its membership voted in favour of?

Negotiations

The negotiations in this year’s public sector pay round are proving problematic across the workforce, with driving test examiners, staff at the Valuation Office Agency, Home Office and Land Registry workers also going on strike this week.

At the same time, the sector is seeking to move forward with the perhaps more pressing long-term agenda of pay modernisation, introducing new flexible employment approaches that will unlock the modernisation of services that people up and down the country are expecting from public sector organisations.

In local government, national negotiators have always faced a difficult balancing act as they seek to represent the interests of a diverse range of councils across the country. On the one hand, there is a desire to secure a deal as quickly as possible, seeking to avoid the type of protracted negotiations we are now witnessing.

Affordability

On the other, there are the very real concerns regarding affordability and the financial challenges the sector is facing. The primary objective will always be to protect funding for front-line services, but, as the trade unions have pointed out, their delivery is dependant on a committed and motivated workforce.

There is a desire among employers to move toward a total reward approach, bringing the range of benefits to staff into a more coherent and flexible framework – for mutual benefit. The changing nature of the local government workforce demands a different approach to pay and conditions, a theme reflected at the recent PPMA conference.

Such an approach would enable employers to more clearly articulate to current and potential staff the total value of the employment package. Perhaps a greater level of understanding and appreciation on this issue would help in managing expectations when it comes to thinking about the annual cost-of-living increase. It would also assist in bringing greater creative thinking to the local government reward agenda, essential for a sector that operates within the constraints of public funding and accountability and where, increasingly, more needs to be achieved with less.

Alignment

With the growing amount of collaboration and integration there is across the public sector – for example, between local government and health – the PPMA believes that more alignment in the pay negotiations and reward frameworks might help overcome some of the major barriers to service improvement that its members face on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, this new approach will present a challenge for both employers and unions, with a shift away from traditional pay relationships, and an enhanced focus on local decision making. It will also require a shift in government thinking to provide greater flexibility than is currently the case, where imaginative solutions may be constrained by the ‘dead hand’ of public sector pay policy.

In the meantime, the immediate challenge is to bring about an early settlement to the current pay dispute and then look to a new direction for the future.

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