County council staff preparing to strike over pay

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Staff in the West Sussex County Council Contact Centre are going on strike on Tuesday April 2.

Protracted pay negotiations, ongoing since autumn 2012, between UNISON and the staff’s employer – Serco plc – have failed to make a breakthrough. Serco’s ‘offer’ to its staff for most of the negotiating period was 0 per cent. A last minute offer on 27th March by Serco of a one-off, non-consolidated sum of £65 was decisively rejected by UNISON.

UNISON members have been balloted in accordance with relevant employment law for industrial action. The turnout for the ballot was 78.4 per cent and the majority in favour of action was 90 per cent.

The strike will be one of only two examples of current industrial action being taken anywhere in the UK by UNISON’s 1.3million members.

The West Sussex County Council Contact Centre is the first point of contact for residents and businesses wanting to get in touch with the County Council. It deals with thousands of contacts from the public each year, ranging from the reporting of potholes to enquiries over the allocation of school places.

In a statement release by West Susex County Council a spokesman said the centre will be open for its peak hours of 9am to 5.30pm instead of 8am to 6pm during the strike.

It will also be focussing on the priority lines of adults and children’s social care, education, emergency management, the Family Information Service, Highways, Registration, Switchboard, and Blue Badge.

Other lines may not be available.

He said: “We would ask members of the public to only call if it’s urgent on the day of the strike.

“We hope to be back to normal on Wednesday, but we would ask anyone to delay making any calls until later in the week if possible. Don’t forget, there is a lot of information on the website at”

Dave Johnson, head of UNISON’s Private Contractors Unit, said: “Serco’s position does not do justice to the hard work of our members over the last year, and their contribution to the profitability of Serco. With RPI inflation running at 3.1% in 2012, our low-paid members simply cannot keep up with the cost of living in the South East. Our members do not take industrial action lightly and I hope today’s strike will send a strong signal to the employer that they must be reasonable and make an offer that is acceptable to our members.”

Serco’s operating profit during 2012 was £287.6million, up 8% on 2011. The company reported to the Stock Market on 5th March 2013 a ‘record level of contract wins and excellent operational performance’, ‘an exceptionally strong conversion rate of profits’ and a 20% increase on dividends paid to investors.

Serco chief executive Christopher Hyman spoke in the profit announcement of his enormous pride in the achievements of his staff in their 25th Anniversary year.

In 2011, Christopher Hyman himself earned £1,860,000, an increase of 18% on 2010. This figure excluded his pension and long-term incentives. In addition to his base salary and annual bonus, Mr Hyman cashed in £1,600,000 of shares in the same year. An announcement by Serco on Mr Hyman’s 2012 remuneration package is due imminently.

UNISON’s position is that its members deserve a fair pay settlement. Serco’s current position is an effective pay cut, for this and all subsequent years. RPI inflation is running at 3.1%. Here in the South East cost of living pressures are particularly severe. Items which low-paid workers spend more of their income on – such as rent, heating, petrol, public transport fares and food – are all on the rise, making life a constant struggle just to get by and make ends meet each month.

The Contact Centre was launched by West Sussex County Council in October 2004 and since then staff within it have variously worked for the following organisations: Liberata Ltd, The Listening Company Ltd, Serco Listening Company Ltd, and Serco plc. In July 2013 staff will again transfer their employment, this time from Serco to Capita plc, after the award of the County Council’s huge Support Services Outsourcing contract to Capita in October 2012.

Sarah McGreal, UNISON Regional Officer for its Sussex Team, said “The County Council cannot outsource all these staff and think it has washed its hands of its responsibilities. It is creating a hugely complex system of local employment, and encouraging independent employers to keep pay low through its use of ‘cost plus’ contracts. This increases staff turnover as people move on as soon as something better comes along, giving the council tax payer less value for money, and strangling the local economy. Public service workers spend 70p of every pound they earn in the local economy.”