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Trade unionists working for Southampton City Council are being called out on strike next week. The strikes do not have the support of the majority of the workforce. Unite got 51% support for strike action on a turnout of 42%. Unison got 56% support on a 39% turnout.

So they don't pass the Raab Test. The Conservative MP Dominic Raab has proposed changing the law so that strikes in transport and essential services would only be legal if backed in a ballot by a majority of the workforce. Emptying the dustbins sounds like a pretty essential service to me.

Furthermore a majority of staff have already signed up to the new pay and conditions which hhave prompted the strikes. The Council are seeking to minimise job losses. The headcount will still have to fall but by making savings on pay it is hoped to avoid compulsory redundancies by allowing the process to be more gradual.

The unions are also taking legal action against the council claiming there wasn't enough consultation. What will that achieve? Even if they win the financial reality will remain the same. The more money the Council spends on lawyers and consultation the less there is to employ those whose interests the unions are supposed to represent.

I suspect that most Southampton residents are opposed to these strikes. But what do the Labour Party think? Alan Whitehead, the Labour MP for Southampton Test voted against the Raab Bill. What does he think of this particular strike? What does John Denham, the Labour MP for Southampton Itchen think? What does Cllr Richard Williams, the Labour Opposition leader on the council think?

Southampton has an excellent leader, Cllr Royston Smith, who made the following points at the ConservativeHome Local Government conference on Wednesday:

Southampton has a population of around 240,000 people. 32% of those in employment work in the public sector. The City Council is no longer the biggest employer having outsourced much of its back office functions in 2007 to Capita and more recently outsourcing the management of all leisure centres to Active Nation. We still employ over 10,000 people – 5000 of these are in schools and around 4700 directly employed by the council.

There is no silver bullet to dealing with our financial problems but there are different ways of achieving what we should all want. In Southampton we have been prudent over the 3 years that we have been in control. We have made efficiency savings of over £24 million. While that is good for our customers it makes this year and the following three years even more challenging. We cannot balance our books by efficiency alone – it’s physically impossible.

We are shining a light on all spend. We have all but scrapped the catering budget – circa £300k. We no longer use any external venues – which had costs in excess of £600k – unless a public interest test is passed. Car allowances, market supplements, bonuses – all gone.

So what else can be done?

Staff are our greatest asset. They are also the bulk of our costs. We have two choices as I see it. Fewer staff or lower costs. All the perks have gone. The only thing left to us is to change our employee’s terms and conditions in order to bring our costs down and to continue to provide the services our customers tell us they want.

In order to save £6.6m in a full year we will ask our staff earning more than £17,500 to take a pay cut. These cuts will be on a sliding scale meaning that the top earners will lose the most. The senior managers and councillors will all take a 5.5% pay cut and those earning less than £17,500 will receive a £250 pay rise.

This will achieve three things.

Firstly it will lower our cost base.

Secondly it will save 400 jobs over the next two years in the local authority meaning no Libraries, Leisure Centres or Sure Start Centres will close and we will keep collecting our bins weekly.

Thirdly, we have to save £25 million this year rising to £65 million in year four. By keeping 400 jobs in the organisation we will buy ourselves time. We will in effect give ourselves another two years for people to move on through retirement or a career change thereby avoiding more compulsory redundancies than is absolutely necessary.

This is not the end of the story – far from it. There is much still to do but we have made a good start. Nearly 60% of our staff have voluntarily signed new contracts accepting the new terms and conditions changes and less than 11% of staff have voted to take strike action.

The unions have not behaved honourably. They have refused to negotiate claiming ‘it’s not for them to offer solutions’. They are pursuing legal action suggesting we haven’t consulted properly and claiming £12 million in compensation from Southampton’s taxpayers. They are clearly representing their organisations over the interests of their members.

In my opinion it must be better to be in a job on slightly less money than to have no job at all. So we will crack on and implement the changes to protect jobs for our staff and frontline services for our
residents.

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