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An argument in favor of social partnerships in the united kingdom

Coastal 34Coastal is an urban authority responsible for delivering a wider set of services than Mid-town which included oversight of schools and the provision of social services. During 2008 a Conservative administration was elected and like Mid-Town it framed its strategy in relation to a context of austerity, building on a legacy of outsourced services.

Budgetary reductions with cost reductions of around 25 per cent planned over three years reinforced the need to generate substantial savings and outsourcing was an important component of this approach. In contrast to Mid-town the council leadership struggled to use pro-austerity frames to legitimate their approach. This was despite an explicit strategy to becoming a commissioning council in which Coastal would purchase and monitor services from a range of providers but not necessarily deliver them in-house: As the council leader explained: Public services to me are providing services to the public and who cares if this is the city council [that] empties your bin?

The services outsourced included customer services, information technologies, property, revenue and benefits, HR, payroll and procurement services. It would have been very costly and difficult to alter this outsourcing approach and bring services back in-house.

The Conservative administration aimed to use the contract to generate savings and provide a one-stop-shop for council services. It also, however, strained employment relations in part because the new service provider required all employees to re-authorise their trade union deductions after transfer, leading to a loss of union membership. This process stemmed from the externalisation of HR services and resulted in an acrimonious relationship with the external provider.

Very little internal HR expertise remained within Coastal and employment relations activity was not managed by HR specialists. This had major consequences for management-union relations as an opposition councillor noted: He outlined the relationship with the CEO in which the leader was very much in charge: This contributed to the difficult atmosphere because there were polarised political differences between the Conservative leadership and the trade union representatives, which would have been less prominent if the negotiations had been led by politically unaligned managers.

The political leader was highly interventionist in operational as well as strategic matters and was accused by critics of acting like an elected mayor, generating tensions with the chief executive and trade unions. Moreover this management strategy provided opportunities for trade unions to frame austerity measures as a local, ideologically motivated, programme rather than as part of a national agenda of retrenchment.

This was in a context in which Unison and Unite had a combined trade union membership of almost 45 per cent of the workforce, but this membership was viewed by trade union representatives as passive and hard to engage. It was replaced by the Partnership Working Group PWG with the agreement, but limited enthusiasm, of trade union representatives. Regular attendance by the CEO indicated that it was an important forum for information sharing and to some extent consultation, albeit very much on a managerially directed agenda.

As a Unison representative stated: Trade union willingness to acquiesce in partnership working partly reflected confidence in the managerial leadership an argument in favor of social partnerships in the united kingdom the Council, but also recognition of the limited influence that trade unions could exert in shaping managerial practice.

This was attributed by union representatives to the fear of job losses, depletion of the pool of long-term trade union activists through restructuring, and a degree of fatalism amongst the workforce in a climate of austerity. One, we will try to minimise redundancies as much as possible… we will use natural wastage and spend more on training and retraining people and as much as we can avoid compulsory redundancies. By contrast imposition of their plans would have released trade unions from any obligation to support management and risked the workforce framing the pay deal as detrimental to their interests and requiring them to absorb the consequences of austerity measures.

The council leadership indicated that they were very reluctant to impose change unilaterally and made concerted efforts to gain support for the deal, but were uncertain if it would be accepted because of its focus on individual performance. The partnership payment and associated local collective agreement signalled a clear shift from progression based on time-served to an emphasis on individual performance and attendance.

Consequently, there was no membership appetite to contest management proposals, members were broadly supportive of the overall management strategy and were frightened of losing their jobs. Both unions endorsed the agreement and Unison, actively campaigned for a yes vote suggesting that the council might discontinue the partnership payment and remove weekend enhancements and overtime rates if the deal was rejected.

The outcome was overwhelming support for the new agreement. The agreement ensured that the link with national bargaining was ended. Instead an annual 1. Trade union density was close to 50 per cent with strongholds of union membership in services that had not been outsourced, such as refuse collection. In addition, both the Unite and Unison convenors were on their national union executives that facilitated access to national trade union resources and opportunities to develop anti-austerity frames amongst the workforce.

  1. As the council leader explained. Email Twitter The Challenge Ecosystems have not always been taken into account by policymakers, and the essential services they deliver have often been undervalued.
  2. By contrast, in Coastal the choice to outsource HR established local constraints on HR capacity and involvement that inhibited their ability to negotiate effectively with the workforce.
  3. Our findings are equivocal about how far trade unions are adopting a strategic response to public sector restructuring and austerity measures; trade unions remain secondary organisations with responses conditioned by the approaches of their employer.

Sick pay and a variety of allowances were to be cut or removed. The aim was to reduce the wagebill, but it was also intended to signal that employment in Coastal, even on worse terms and conditions, remained highly attractive.

The final employer offer included the removal of increments for two years and pay cuts of between 2 and 5. Voluntary redundancy payments were enhanced and there was a guarantee of no further compulsory redundancies below senior manager grade. Crucially, however, the package endorsed by the full council included the recommendation that: A second dilemma related to uncertainty about the extent to which trade union members would be prepared to take industrial action in a national climate in which the necessity of austerity measures was constantly emphasised.

Accommodating pay reductions was therefore considered, as a Unite representative explained: And also that we wanted to look at some time-limited effect of their pay cuts, so at some point in the future we wanted the pay to be restored. On both counts they refused to give any guarantees and these cuts were permanent. The Council faced local elections and the trade unions were campaigning for the Labour Party with an expectation that an incoming administration would soften some of the pay cuts.

Extended and high-profile industrial action might generate short-term concessions, but could damage support for the Labour Party because of its link to the trade unions, jeopardising longer-term outcomes favourable to the workforce.


The upshot was protracted negotiations with the Council leadership, but a failure to resolve the dispute shifted the trade unions towards a three-pronged union strategy: In particular in a national context in which pro-austerity frames were dominant, exemplified by employment reductions and a national pay freeze, and with limited alternative employment prospects, there was considerable uncertainty if union members would support industrial action that aimed to mobilise anti-austerity assumptions and arguments.

This was not a convincing mandate and trade union responses therefore concentrated on selective high-profile rolling industrial action by the most organised groups that would put the most pressure on the council. Unite and Unison tried to convert weakness into strength by not relying on the whole union membership to take strike action and ensuring that workers received strike pay to maintain their commitment to strike action.

Action short of a strike included an overtime ban, working to contract, and a refusal by staff such as social workers to use their cars for council business. Selective strike action by parking attendants hit council revenue but did not stop the provision of council services to residents. A Unite representative explained: We wanted to select high profile and income generating services and take those people out for long periods of time.

  • Ed , Disorganized Capitalism;
  • What Options for Resistance?
  • Both unions endorsed the agreement and Unison, actively campaigned for a yes vote suggesting that the council might discontinue the partnership payment and remove weekend enhancements and overtime rates if the deal was rejected;
  • CBI, 2012, Open Access:

And we paid them their full pay once they were out. Coastal used section 188 notices to dismiss and re-engage staff, requiring a 90 day period of statutory consultation.

Trade unions argued that these requirements had not been followed and pursued an employment tribunal case. If Coastal had lost the employment tribunal they faced the prospect of a large compensation bill for all employees that were dismissed and re-engaged in summer 2011. As a union official explained: In subsequent local elections, a Labour administration was formed within Coastal and pledged a phased reversal of pay cuts.

Discussion 63The extent to which public service employers are able to develop a strategic approach has been a long-standing preoccupation of employment relations analysis and this debate has been reignited in a period of austerity and extended to incorporate analysis of trade union strategy.

Since the 1980s and 1990s when strategic choice approaches were first applied to public services Kessler and Purcell, 2000abpublic service restructuring has continued apace. These trends have been intensified by the global financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures with deep cuts in local government funding. In this altered context there has been considerable uncertainty about the scope for organisational level choice and the form that any such choices would take.

The value of these cases resides in their distinctiveness as identified by sector actors and the extent that they bring into sharp relief the application of strategic choice frameworks. The two case studies indicated distinctive strategies in responding to restructuring and austerity measures that belies the emphasis in many accounts of neo-liberal convergence towards similar policies of marketization and privatization.

Assessing the United Kingdom's ecosystems

This approach was facilitated by the alignment of the political and managerial leadership and the development of a carefully calibrated labour—management and reward strategy. Trade unions had misgivings about the downgrading of councillor involvement, the proposed local collective agreement and a tougher managerial stance, but in a context of a national pay freeze and the dominance of pro-austerity frames, trade unions acquiesced in this strategy and developed co-operative relations with the council leadership.

The establishment of the partnership payment compensated staff that had not received a national pay increase but also enhanced performance management.

The council leadership placed less emphasis on gaining trade union support for its approach and there was limited incentive to pursue partnership approaches with a workforce that included many outsourced services. Trade unions faced limited support for prolonged strike action, but used selective strikes amongst the most organised workers and utilised anti—austerity frames.

They portrayed the council leadership as pursuing an ideological, privatisation orientated approach, that contributed to pay cuts and which unfairly placed the burden of adjustment on the workforce.

The effects of budgetary constraints and an era of austerity are an argument in favor of social partnerships in the united kingdom visible with similarities between the case studies in terms of large reductions in employment between 2008-2012 Figure 1. Nonetheless, each authority responded to budgetary restrictions in a distinctive way that was influenced by the specific legacy of in-house provision and political party traditions, but these legacies did not pre-determine the policies and practices pursued.

In the case of Mid-Town services had always been provided in-house, but a weak financial and managerial legacy reinforced by budgetary cuts proved a springboard for a unified managerial and political leadership to redirect this legacy towards a more ambitious trading model and the recalibration of management union relations. In Coastal there was a legacy of outsourcing and a new political leadership sought to extend outsourcing into a more encompassing form of commissioning authority in response to budgetary cuts.

Despite decades of public sector restructuring, these findings suggest that employers have used the austerity crisis to build on this legacy, departing further from pre-existing practice in local government.

In contrast to earlier studies that separate choice at organisational level from constraint at national level this article has emphasised the blending of choice and constraint that connects national and local level developments. In analysing strategic choice institutional constraints and ideological narratives have been reframed as resources by local actors. By contrast, in Coastal the choice to outsource HR established local constraints on HR capacity and involvement that inhibited their ability to negotiate effectively with the workforce.

Although austerity measures are widely conceived as associated with a neo-liberal ideology that favours market-based governance Blyth, 2013; Grimshaw, 2013 there has been little attempt to understand how ideology enables or constraints employer choice.

This article has focused on austerity as it relates to practice that draws on austerity as ideology, but recognises the scope for differentiated strategies. In Mid-Town the council leadership used pro-austerity frames sparingly but effectively to present workforce adjustments as necessary and inevitable and linked to government budgetary cuts that resulted in job losses and a pay freeze.

By contrast in Coastal austerity measures were attributed as much to the council leadership rather than stemming primarily from government policy, enabling anti-austerity frames to gain ground. Local trade unions were effective at portraying the council leadership as ideologically committed to shrinking the local state and punishing the workforce.

The imposition of pay cuts, the dismissal and re-engagement of the workforce and limited attempts to resolve strike action reinforced the credibility of these anti-austerity frames. Although there are some continuities with the past in terms of the maintenance of systems of national pay determination Colling, 1993; Kessler, 2000 our results indicate increased experimentation in altering terms and conditions on a local basis and shifts in union-management relations towards partnership or unilateralism.

Local variations in core national conditions, such as reductions in sick pay or annual level, have been reported by many local authorities IDS, 2013 indicating a recalibration of the balance between national and local decision and an undermining of the regulatory influence of the local government national agreement, enhancing the scope for local strategic choice. This was not the main focus of the article and we have concentrated on trade union policy and practice at organisational level.

Our findings are equivocal about how far trade unions are adopting a strategic response to public sector restructuring and austerity measures; trade unions remain secondary organisations with responses conditioned by the approaches of their employer. This is not to suggest that trade unions have no scope for choice as the decision to accommodate or confront management in the two cases illustrates, but this process is better characterised as strategic incrementalism Fairbrother, 2010, p.

Constraints can be enabling for employers and these constraints extend beyond much discussed frameworks such as national pay determination to include ideologies of austerity that are marshalled by local actors to advance their strategies. Targeted Change, Palgrave-Macmillan, Basingstoke. CBI, 2012, Open Access: What Options for Resistance? EdsSocial Policy in the European Union: EdsFinding a Voice at Work: Local government new burdens.

EdDisorganized Capitalism: