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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Summer of discontent
Emergency refuse collection in Leicester Square in 1979
Summer of discontent

Now is the summer of our discontent. As a meter reading of union misery under New Labour, the vote for strike action by a million council workers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland must be ringing all kinds of alarm bells inside government.

The strike will affect schools, leisure centres, housing and environmental services and while John Prescott may have put out a statement saying 'local government pay is a matter for local councils and not the government' - he knows public service reform is much harder to deliver if the workers fight it.

Our political correspondent Guto Harri reported.

No-one's nostalgic, but 23 years after the Winter of Discontent, Britain could well be heading for another season of industrial strife.

Three of the biggest unions are now co-ordinating plans for a series of national strikes in local government. Postal workers, firefighters, railway and underground employees are fighting their own battles. Long frustrated with the Government, they're now seriously fed up. Union leaders point to low pay, spiralling housing costs and intense job insecurity as the corrosive cocktail which led their members to opt overwhelmingly for industrial action.

(UNISON Branch Secretary, Manchester)
Unfortunately, we still maintain amongst the lowest rates of all public sector workers. We are very much the Cinderellas of public sector pay levels, and we have increasingly fallen behind the private sector and other public sector workers, such as NHS staff and the fire union workers' settlement, for example. We feel disenfranchised from Central Government in terms of our pay settlements.

Brian Armstrong proves that point. A Foreman with 27 years service as a road worker in Oldham, his basic salary is just 11,000.

(Roadworker Foreman)
Morale within local government is really low at the moment. Even now in the private sector, people can get better jobs stacking shelves in Asda than they can working for the councils. So the morale is really low.

56% of the Unison members who voted wanted to strike.
In the GMB, it was 66%.
The unions between them represent 1.4 million local authority workers and they're among Britain's lowest paid workers.
250,000 of them earn less than 5 an hour.
And more than half of council workers take home less in a year than councillors can claim in attendance fees.

Councils offered a 3% pay deal. But the unions reject that, calling for a 6% rise for workers. The first national strike will take place on Wednesday 17th July. It will affect all areas of local government. Social services, home care, education, environmental health, housing, planning, transport, refuse collection, catering, cleaning. But employers, local councils, say that a 6% settlement would be disastrous. Either thousands of jobs must go or council taxes will have to rise by over 200 a household.

(Chairman, Local Government Association)
It is not a 6% claim. The claim would cost the employers 12%, when all the factors are funded. That is a figure which councils cannot afford. We could only pay that if we cut services significantly, because we don't have the resources to meet a claim of that size.

The kinds of services provided by local authorities might not be glamorous, but if 1.5 million workers walk out this summer, we will all notice. Ministers have only recently started to wake up to this fact. Some have been very slow, causing unease among the backbenchers. But Tony Blair has been chairing frantic negotiations behind the scenes. Today's votes will intensify the pressure to find some resolution. Gordon Brown is particularly keen to defuse that tension, not least because the first national strike is planned to coincide with his announcement of the Government's spending plans. The Chancellor won't want good news overshadowed by a bitter dispute which is causing much alarm on Labour's back-benches.

(Former Labour Minister)
I don't think it's necessarily a parallel with 1979. What I do think is that we need, within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and most specifically within the Government, to take note that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction. Because rightly or wrongly, many people out there feel as though we haven't yet delivered for them. Indeed, I think it's fair to say, the Government from the Prime Minister down have recognised that it's all about delivery for ordinary people. That delivery takes many forms. These are users of public services as well as employees within them.

The London Assembly has woken up to a problem which is particularly acute in its patch. It's recommending a huge hike in London weighting to tackle recruitment and retention problems in some key services, and the former Mayor of Islington, who commissioned the study, says all levels of government have a responsibility.

(Member, Greater London Assembly, Labour)
I do understand the feelings of some public sector workers about their pay levels. It's sad at this stage to go for this sort of strike action. We all need to work together. There is a common acknowledgement across the board that there is a problem. We need to work constructively to resolve that. Striking doesn't help that dialogue, unfortunately. But I do understand that frustration. In local government, there isn't the cash there to pay that sort of money, so really it's a bit of a pyrrhic strike in many ways.

Workers like these are aware they won't win their battle unless Central Government gives their bosses more money. And though ministers are pretending tonight this is not their dispute, senior figures in the Labour Party are already warning them not to underestimate the damage it could cause them.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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06 Jul 02 | Business
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