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Dadansoddiad a thrafodaeth radicalaidd o wleidyddiaeth yng Nghymru
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Labour council pushes through Tory budget

On 19th October last year, amid an air of comradely bonhomie and a general feeling of a common cause, Welsh trade unionists sat in a committee room in Parliament and listened to Labour Party MPs declare that they would work closely with the unions to both fight the public sector cuts and defend working people and communities.

The following day, trade unions in Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT) council were called in to an emergency meeting to be told that the Labour led council was to issue a ‘Section 188 Notice’, with a view to dismissing over 10,000 staff and re-engaging on lesser terms and conditions.

The changes were proposed in the context of an anticipated budget shortfall of £60 million over the next three years (which turned out to be £45m). Three areas were to be considered to close the gap; efficiency savings, service provision and staff terms and conditions.

The section 188 notice marked the commencement of 90 days negotiations around changes to staff terms and conditions. Throughout the negotiations it was claimed that a collective agreement was preferable and the 188 was just to keep their options open. Yet paert way through negotiations, trade union officers were called in advised that talks were over. With hardly any concessions having been made, the Council were going to impose their proposals unilaterally. Clearly the spirit of cooperation agreed in Westminster was not going to be echoed in RCT.

In order to side step confrontation with the unions – and to be able to avoid the stigma of having sacked 10,000 workers – the council proceeded to offer staff new contracts for them to sign ‘voluntarily’. If anyone was losing money through the process, they would be offered a one off compensation payment the equivalent of one year’s loss. Failure to sign by the 18th of February would result in the compensation offer being withdrawn and a dismissal notice being issued.

Some staff chose to return their contracts with a letter of protest, only to find Human Reasources knocking on their door in the evening telling them they had to withdraw their protest, or again, lose compensation.

New contracts have now been issued to those that were not bullied or bribed into accepting the first contract. However, this time, failure to sign will result in dismissal. Yet management still maintain that there is no ‘compulsion’ to sign the contract and there has been no ‘duress’.

The council’s defence throughout has been that it is avoiding compulsory redundancies and very few staff would suffer any detriment. But a cursory dig beyond the headlines reveals staff losing up to £6,700 a year; over 600 people losing 10% of their wage. The biggest losers being the low paid workers who have to work extra hours or unsocial hours to top up their wages – generally jobs that provide a vital role to the community, such as caring for the elderly or gritting roads.

In an effort to help close the funding gap, the unions presented the employer with a list of suggestions for efficiency savings from union members. The suggestions were ignored, and the Chief Executive blocked meetings with service directors to discuss savings.

The savings made through the changes to staff terms and conditions are around £5.5million. No detail has been provided as to how the other £8.5million will be saved, yet the council still feels confident enough to make promises about no redundancies and no cuts to front line services. The unions are doubtful these promises can be delivered, especially as the council has no idea how they are going to make these efficiency savings.

The proposals were bad enough, but the implementation, the refusal to talk to trade unions, the bully boy tactics and a succession of factually incorrect statements made to the press has forced to unions to consider industrial action. Council leader, Russel Roberts has publicly stated that he is ‘staggered’ by the union response – conveniently ignoring the fact that it was him that told the trade unions negotiations were at an end despite the consultation period required in law having not been exhausted.

On January 24th the Joint Trade Unions and the Welsh Local Government Association signed a memorandum of understanding on the way forward for savings. RCT chose to rush its proposals through before the memorandum was signed. Roberts has stated that he did not know when it would be agreed and could not wait – despite the fact that officers of the council and the trade unions had discussed a draft version of the memorandum in detail.

At the Welsh Labour Party Conference in Llandudno, Ed Miliband proclaimed that his party would fight the cuts and that:
“a vote for Labour on 5th May was a vote for a different way"
less than a week later, the full council met to approve the budget. The meeting was quickly adjourned and the council tried to clear the public gallery and conduct its business behind closed doors. Following a walk out of opposition councillors and intervention from the Branch Secretaries of UNISON and the GMB, together with the reluctance of the police in attendance to intervene, common sense prevailed and the meeting continued.

After much party political grandstanding – and the bizarre sight of the Lib Dems making out they were the friends of the workers – the budget was forced through with no dissent from within the Labour Party.

Whilst “a vote for Labour is a vote for a different way"; there is no guarantee it will be a better way. Clearly the roots of this issue lie in Westminster, but that does not mean Labour councils should be smoothing through the policies of the Coalition and blaming someone else. The alternatives to the slash and burn of the public sector have been widely published by the trade unions.

Rather than let employers impose long terms changes on staff to deal with a short term problem, we must all take a more active role in fighting this ideological attack on the public sector. If elected representatives do not represent our views, we must elect someone who does. If employers refuse to engage with trade unions, we must remind them that they cannot function without us turning up for work everyday.