I DON’T know how many staff earning top money at Southampton City Council are actually members of the Unite and Unison unions.

Certainly if not then they should be very grateful to those who do pay their annual subscriptions.

News last week that the city council’s Labour administration has finally bowed to union demands to reinstate pay levels at Southampton lost in the bitter dispute of two years ago will have been welcomed by all staff – well almost.

Those who have lost their jobs as a result of the deal by the unions and the Labour group – the price for getting them into power and knocking out the Tories – may not be so pleased with the turn of events, but more of that later.

All will recall the dispute in Southampton in the warm summer of 2011 when rubbish piled high in the streets and recriminations ran amok. Central to the dispute was the ruling Tory group’s decision to cut council staff salaries across the board in a bid, they said, to save jobs and services.

The dispute rumbled on for some months but only took traction when the unions brought out dustbin men – ironic as their salaries were not under threat – and the stink across the city started rising.

An uneasy peace followed, but the unions vowed to fight on with legal challenges and finally won the day with the election of a Labour administration last year. Since then staff have been promised their salary would be reinstated once details were thrashed out, to the joy of all concerned, no doubt.

Best pleased of all, however, must be those earning £100,000 or more who will receive increases of £5,000 or more each as their salaries rise by 5.5 per cent. That was the top level percentage removed by the Tories when in power.

Those on lower salaries saw less of their wages cut and will receive a smaller increase. Some, those on under £17,000 a year, did not have their pay cut and so get nothing. It’s a strange world then, that the unions’ battle to compensate their members has given the most to those on whopping salaries already while getting nothing for the lowest paid.

Such is the irony of life and politics in local government, not to mention a lot of smoke and mirrors.

The £2.8m cost of the payback (not a windfall perhaps, if you accept the money was always owed to staff) will come from council funds and is part of the £13.3m the authority has announced it must slash from next year’s budget. But not to worry, says the leadership, this was money set aside by the Tories to fight the legal bid by the unions to fight the cuts. Which may be true, but it is still £2.8m from council coffers that has to be found. More smoke.

The stuff gets thicker when considering that ‘legal challenge’ which the council says the unions have now stopped following their agreement on compensation. True, but the Labour Party campaigned, with union support, on a platform to reinstate salaries if returned to power.

The legal challenge died when the election results were announced.

All this is strange. The unions promised members they would win them in the region of £12m compensation to be shared out, but dropped the bid once Labour took control.

The deal they have now hammered out with the administration does not provide for any compensation or back pay for existing staff, but has achieved £65,000 to be shared among former staff who have already lost their jobs. But the question remains, was there ever a serious chance of the unions winning their bid and if so why did they throw all that compensation away? A legal win would have seen the salaries reinstated anyway.

The reaction from the Tory group to the pay reinstatement is to point to the job losses caused as a result, losses they say they warned all along would be the result of staff not accepting an across the board pay cut. However, peering further back through the smoke, we can recall the warnings from the Tories back in 2011 were of job losses in the figure of some 400. After yesterday’s announcement the Conservatives were giving a smaller total of 100 jobs lost due to the pay levels being reinstated. Labour, while admitting some losses, put the figure at only 25.

A quick go with the calculator – and far from scientific I will admit – would seem to indicate that the smaller figure is closer to the truth.

The £2.8m increased cost in salaries is roughly equal to around 95 jobs at an average cost of £30,000.

These are back-of-the-fag-packet calculations, of course, but it’s difficult to reach the 400 posts mooted by the Tories. On the other hand, the Tories will certainly point to higher taxes, including the scrapping of the 10 per cent council tax rebate for pensioners and higher charges for services as further results of the pay reduction scrapping.

So here we are then, back at square one-ish. The unions have fulfilled their pledge to their members – with the unfortunate exception of those who are now jobless, but hey ho – and deny claims they have gained such influence at the council they now sit in on meetings to nod their approval. Council staff have their old salaries back. And those at the top of the heap can look forward to a massive payday any time soon.

Who would have thought this would have been the scene when the smoke cleared from the battlefield.