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Trashy Tale: Leader and the Leading Hands

Trashy Tale: Leader and the Leading Hands

🕔31.Aug 2017

Birmingham city council has this evening announced that it is issuing redundancy notices to Grade 3 “Leading Hands” members of staff, but none of them would have to leave the employ of the Council, writes Kevin Johnson.

Whilst the Council has said it hopes it will enable Unite the union not to take workers back to industrial action, nobody is holding their breath.

There is likely to be more mess and a degree of misery, but the crisis is likely to reach a conclusion one way or another. But it could take another two months to work through.

On the surface, tonight’s statement sounds too good to be true. The council gets to reform the way waste collection works; makes it more efficient but no one need lose their job.

What’s all the fuss been about, you might ask?

The crisis allows old problems to appear back at the surface.

To some, particularly on the Labour side, John Clancy’s administration is dealing with problems left over by the Whitby/Tilsley “Progressive Alliance” when they last re-structured Waste Management in 2011.

A Labour council dealing with reforms requiring sensitive industrial relations might benefit from close connections with union officials. Or political ties and historical alliances might actually hamper their room for manoeuvre. Loyalty might also impair sound judgement.

For Unite, council proposals would make the waste collections less safe. The union is seeking to protect jobs and both the safety of their members as well as the general public. Which is what a trade union is supposed to do.

But for others, this is evidence that Unite is demonstrating its ‘militant’ or at least more aggressive tendencies now that its General Secretary, Len McCluskey, has been re-elected to the post and has removed his rival, West Midlands boss Gerard Coyne.

READ : what’s ‘bin’ going on?

Reforms are never easy to implement. When rubbish piles up on the streets where Council Tax payers live, it brings the problem into the public eye.

Has the council managed as best in can in the circumstances? It would appear, under the direction of Interim Chief Executive Stella Manzie, it has taken a pretty robust approach.

But the council would likely respond that Unite has not engaged as it might and has encouraged its members not to engage either, in contrast to the other unions which have members in waste collection.

Even so, was a hardline approach ever going to work in such a delicate area.

In stepped council leader, John Clancy, to try and help resolve the crisis. He certainly bought time, if nothing else.

But the questions remain about the timing and quality of legal advice sought and received by Cllr Clancy and his cabinet.

When Cllr Clancy interjected with Unite’s Howard Beckett, Labour sources have indicated to Chamberlain Files that he was not fully aware of the secondary consequences of retaining Grade 3 staff in waste collection.

Cllr Clancy’s intentions were to bring the union back to the negotiating table. Whilst he didn’t promise to retain the Grade 3 staff, Labour sources say, he wanted to explore what was possible and to minimise any job losses.

Whilst there were some verbal exchanges, formal advice had been slow to emerge we understand. Earlier Council acquired advice was later deemed to miss the mark.

Cllr Clancy, backed by his Cabinet, decided to seek independent advice from a leading QC after checking he had a right to seek third party assistance. The results gave the Cabinet confidence that the advice they were now being told by officers was actually right.

Retaining the Grade 3 roles would have led to “very large” equal pay claims as well as sex discrimination and maladministration claims. Female Grade 2 workers across the council would have made the case that they had as much responsibility as the Grade 3 waste collection workers, who also happen to be predominantly both white and male.

A report in today’s Municipal Journal says that the Council feared female workers in eight areas, such as adult social care, could complain. Officers were also concerned that both female workers who have been downgraded from Grade 3 could make a case they had comparable work to the Leading Hands, as well as those who have already been awarded who might seek to add to their payment.

Now, the council thinks it’s found a solution that senior officers and the Cabinet can stand behind. But, privately, it does not expect Unite to be popping corks.

The council’s statement says that:

In order to protect its legal and financial position, the council is issuing redundancy notices to the Grade 3 Leading Hands in the refuse service – as approved by Cabinet on 27 June. The notices will be received on Friday 1 September. The council wishes to continue its ongoing discussions with trades unions through ACAS in parallel with seeking alternative jobs for the Grade 3s affected by redundancy.

The council has postponed discussion of the Waste Management Report originally adjourned from 24th August to a Special Cabinet on 1 September, to a reconvened meeting on 13 September. The 1st September Cabinet meeting has been cancelled.

Cllr John Clancy, Leader of Birmingham city council, said:

The new waste collection system we are introducing will provide a better, more efficient service for citizens and will enable the service to be run within budget.

We will be creating more than 200 new refuse collection jobs for loaders. These will be full-time, offering a range of benefits, including pension entitlement and sick pay and will replace expensive agency contracts which do not include these benefits.

Cllr Lisa Trickett, Cabinet Member for Clean Streets, Recycling and Environment, added:

None of the Grade 3 leading hands who are being made redundant need to lose their jobs with the council. Alternative Grade 3 posts, at the same salary in other parts of the council, are available for all those affected leading hands. No one needs to suffer a cut in their basic pay.

We hope that, in view of the ongoing discussions with Acas , Unite will not take their workforce back out on strike but continue in discussions with us and the other unions.

Essentially, the council’s position is that current Grade 3 postholders can apply for Grade 3 posts across the local authority or for Grade 2 posts in waste collection. More posts will become available as the new five day working pattern is implemented and as the council will no longer need to employ agency workers.

Grade 3 Leading Hands may, over the course of the next two months as their redundancy notices become effective, decide to apply for the other roles rather than suffer loss of earnings through withdrawal of labour. For some, redundancy might be attractive.

Surely, you might suggest, such a position could have been reached three months ago following Cabinet sign off for the reform plans.

For John Clancy, this is the most difficult issue he has faced since becoming leader nearly two years ago.

READ: Council – it’s not all rubbish

Slowly emerging from, effectively, special measures has been in large part made possible by his double act with Stella Manzie. That is not looking quite so glossy.

The leader and chief executive have not been so aligned over how to handle this industrial dispute.

The leader and the council have appeared flat footed in communication terms, not withstanding the difficulties of explaining what is happening surrounded by lawyers and union officials.

There is no longer quite the same talk of Ms Manzie staying much beyond her original six month term, or even applying for the job on a permanent basis.

Which will bring back to the fore the question of recruiting for the biggest but most challenging job in local government. Which is where we started when Chamberlain Files broke the news of Mark Rogers departure from that very post.

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