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Are unions running the council?
Opposition Tories say the trade unions are calling the shots and dictate policy in a “back door” takeover of the Civic Centre.
But the unions themselves insist their new influence at Southampton council is merely a return to good industrial relations.
The Daily Echo can reveal that since Labour was elected in May trade union representatives now attend the monthly top level meeting of the council’s management board made up of the chief executive and council directors.
They can also sit in on regular Cabinet member briefings with senior officers as well as officer decision- making meetings, all behind closed doors.
Tory group leader Councillor Royston Smith claims unions are now “dictating” policy and said it was time to slash council funding for union reps as the council goes out to consultation on its deepest ever budget cuts and record jobs losses.
Mike Tucker, branch secretary of the Unison union, the largest at the council, said the access was nothing new, but a “re-activation” of a series of consultative groups that came to an end under the previous four-year Tory administration.
He said the meetings were an opportunity to raise issues or discuss policy initiatives to “improve the way the council works and try to identify problems before they arise. It’s what happens with most employers.”
Mr Tucker said: “Despite what Royston Smith says we don’t run the council. We have the opportunity to influence decisions but it’s the full council that makes the policy decisions.”
He added union representatives met with council officers more often than with Labour council leaders.
“We are not meeting with the Labour administration on a daily or even weekly basis,” he said.
Yet trade unions were given a confidential copy of the budget a week before it was published and Unite, the union, breached a council embargo by an hour to release the headline details of the cuts.
Council leader Councillor Richard Williams refused to give even an early hint of the budget when quizzed by the city’s pensioners’ forum the same afternoon.
Cllr Smith said a preference for losing jobs over pay, keeping services in-house and being hostile to sharing services had all fed into Labour’s budget approach.
He added that the Labour leadership had little room for manoeuvre because of commitments made to the unions in the run-up to the local elections.
He pointed to a recent Cabinet paper on a new redeployment scheme as evidence of union influence.
It initially recommended consultation on the details with “staff and unions” but was amended to just “unions”. Nearly half of the council’s 4,000-strong workforce are not union members. Cllr Smith said the amendment gave unions greater power.
“We all go through the process of trying to get elected so we can further our own aims, but the unions have not bothered to do that. They have got Labour elected through their big election posters and publications and now they get to sit in on every meeting,” he said.
“The unions are a massive influence.
"They have put themselves in charge of running Southampton City Council by the back door.
“Labour are run by the unions which is a throwback to the dark old days of the 1970s.”
Unite branch secretary Mark Wood was unavailable for comment.
Council finance boss Councillor Simon Letts said: “Like all good employers it is sensible that the council consults with its workforce and staff representatives have been invited to attend briefings with cabinet members if they wish.
“We feel this approach to staff relations is better than the previous administration’s.
"Their approach left a million uncollected bin bags on the streets of Southampton and left us with the worst local council staff relations in the country.
"Due to the vast scale of Government cuts it is important that we work closely with staff and their representatives in these very difficult times.”