Uncivil action is not just about money

Last
week’s industrial action by the members of the Civil Service surprised many,
yet it is not just about money. Wendy Ledger investigates the real reasons for
the unrest

From
DTI initiatives such as ‘Partnership with People’, to numerous HR reports and
recommendations, the Government appears to be demonstrating a serious
commitment to improving employee relations in the workplace.

Yet
last week, civil servants took to the picket lines to take part in the biggest
industrial action within the service for more than a decade.

Members
of the PCS union at the Home Office and the Department of Constitutional
Affairs (DCA) voted for a 48-hour walkout over the issue of endemic low pay
within some departments.

But
is the Government failing to meet its own recommendations for good management
practice or is it a case of union militancy?

Public
sector pay negotiations are influenced by the Treasury, making them more
difficult than those in the private sector and it is not always easy for
government departments to practice what the Government preaches.

“Individual
departments within the public sector rarely have the freedom to manoeuvre seen
in the private sector because of Treasury constraints,” says Mike Emmott
employee relations adviser at the CIPD. “It is unfair to assume that because
the negotiations have broken down that it is a matter of bad management.”

Yet
when individual civil servants are rumoured to have joined the union only last
week simply to be able to take part in the strike, it is hard to believe it is
about union militancy.

Moreover
some civil servants have reported that they are not just incensed over endemic
low pay, but over other HR issues that have nothing to do with the Treasury.

As
one Home Office civil servant told personneltoday.com: “The terrible
relationships that exists between staff and management, has driven some very
unlikely characters on to the picket line.”

Added
to the unofficial grumbling of civil servants however are the facts of this
dispute.

According
to the DCA “there is no more money available”. A Home Office spokesperson said
the department had kept to last years agreement of meeting the 3.1 per cent
progression increase to take good performers up the pay range and by doing so
had less money for other pay changes.

So
on the surface it is all about money. The workers want more and the departments
don’t have it. But the reality is much more complex.

The
way in which the Government has chosen to award Civil Service pay is more of an
issue than the percentage points. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS
union, says the lack of a national system is the root of the problem.

"The
Government wants each department to negotiate its own pay settlements yet No 11
still controls the finances,” he said.

However,
if the Treasury still controls the money supply there is no room for
departmental negotiation.

If,
as the PCS has suggested, the pay offer does not meet the promises of previous
agreements, even though each department may be responsible for its own pay
awards, the management teams don’t actually have any power to negotiate, they
can only impose. Hence no real negotiations and a strike.

If
departments are to negotiate their own awards, the union says, those management
teams must have influence with the Treasury to seek more funds when needed. If
not the union believes the negotiations must be done nationally.

If
a pay system is failing surely the Government should do just what it
enthusiastically recommends to the private sector and address the issue. This
may well be happening.

Commenting
on the union’s long-term goal Serwotka is optimistic: “We are engaging with the
Cabinet Office with regard to a new national pay system and the signs are
encouraging. There has certainly been an intellectual shift towards the
principle.”

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