Continuity, change and crowding out: The reshaping of collective bargaining in UK local government

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines elements of continuity and change in systems of pay determination in UK local government, with a specific focus on the period of austerity since 2010. Spending cuts present significant challenges for collective bargaining through the National Joint Council (NJC), which also serves as a 'critical case' to test our understanding of contemporary collective bargaining and industrial relations. The research draws on 56 interviews with a total of 62 key actors from the employers' representative organisations and trade unions at both national and local level, and eight local authority case studies. The interview data are complemented by a range of secondary qualitative and quantitative data sources. It seeks to understand the changing power relationships between employers and unions as they attempt to navigate increasingly turbulent waters, and the pragmatic trade-offs both sides are willing make over pay, terms and conditions, and working practices in pursuit of longer-term strategic goals. These issues are addressed through three levels of analysis. Firstly, building on a rich tradition of industrial relations research, the thesis shows how the national employers have repositioned the sector level collective agreement as a means to deliver cost control rather than 'fair wages', which the unions have so far tolerated in preference to a complete dissolution of national bargaining. Second, drawing on contingency models of pay and HRM, case study data are used to explore the mixture of managerialism and political opportunism which characterises the development and implementation of pay and reward strategies at the level of the organisation. The findings identify the continued importance of transparent job evaluation processes in determining wage structures, but also show how pay practices act as a means to signal desired behaviours from employees, and are used to reinforce local level political narratives. Finally, through a critical re-appraisal of New Public Management (NPM) reforms in local government since the 1980s, further case study data reveal the way in which employers have reorganised staffing structures to match reduced budgets, but it appears that increased levels of work intensity for a significantly depleted workforce are beginning to impact on service standards. The findings also suggest that the on-going process of restructuring serves as a means to increase managerial control of 'the labour process' through the efforts to standardise working practices and break down embedded departmental and professional identities. Taken together, the evidence suggests that although the formal institutions of employment relations have proved to be remarkably resilient, collective bargaining as a dynamic mode of joint regulation built on the notion of partnership has steadily been crowded out from both above and below. The meaningful content of negotiations has been squeezed by the tight financial constraints applied by central government, and in the vacuum created by stalled sector level negotiations local level pay and HRM strategies are becoming increasingly important to explain the level and distribution of wages. Perhaps as important as negotiations over pay are negotiations over working practices which fall outside the formal regulatory scope of the collective agreement, and change expectations about working time, task discretion, and job boundaries. A degree of drift across these three dimensions has resulted in an increasingly fluid adjustment of the wage-effort bargain over which the unions have a declining sphere of influence.
Date of Award1 Aug 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJill Rubery (Supervisor) & Damian Grimshaw (Supervisor)


  • Public sector, local government, collective bargaining, employment relations, trade unions, pay determination, gender equality, austerity, UK

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