A union leader in Brighton and Hove has spoken out after public funding towards the cost of his work was criticised at the council budget meeting.
Alex Knutsen has come under a sustained attack recently even though he’s been told more than once that “it’s not personal”.
It certainly feels personal, he said.
He is the branch secretary of the Unison trade union in Brighton and Hove, a post that he has held for a total of 23 years and full time for the past 12 years.
He has, he said, saved the council millions of pounds – at least £20 million and possibly as much as £35 million.
It might seem an unusual claim from a union official. But Alex Knutsen is in tune with the times. He said that he and his small team had helped save the money as the council dealt with a series of equal pay rulings and agreements known as “single status”.
Under the single status agreement – in 1997 – manual workers and low-paid staff were given a fairer deal. Dinner ladies and school cooks were typically among those affected.
By 2007, when the Conservatives took control of Brighton and Hove City Council, there were more than 3,000 outstanding claims for equal pay.
The party agreed to fund extra union staff to try to settle the cases. Now it wants cuts to funding for those same union staff.
Other councils had been landed with heavy legal costs and big bills for back pay.
Mr Knutsen has spent much of the past four years bringing this backlog down to about 300 cases.
The settlements so far have cost the council about just over half of the sum for which it was legally liable and a series of employment tribunal cases has been avoided.
When councillors debated whether to freeze the council tax or put it up, the Conservative group leader, Geoffrey Theobald, brought up union pay.
He wanted the £146,000 cost taken out of the budget but his amendments were voted down.
Mr Knutsen said: “At the present (Green) administration’s request, Unison agreed to reduce its facilities by one full-time post, saving approximately £25,000, in recognition that we all do have to make some sacrifices.”
The 54-year-old former social worker said that Unison also contributes towards the cost of employing the staff who represent council workers.
The union employs the equivalent of four full-timers to represent its 4,300 members in Brighton and Hove, of whom about 3,700 work for the council. The other 600 members work for about 80 employers in the area.
Mr Knutsen said that while most of the equal pay cases had now been settled, he was still busy.
The council has been cutting jobs – restructuring teams of staff – to try to save millions of pounds a year.
Mr Knutsen said: “I’ve got 20 restructurings on the go at the moment which is more than I’ve ever known. Some of them are quite small but it’s still a lot.”
And there is the firefighting. Matters like the 40 school cleaners at Dorothy Stringer, Patcham High and Varndean who were not paid for more than five weeks by their employer Ocean Contract Cleaning.
Unison stepped in. The schools made emergency payments. And Ocean, which blamed an unspecified technical problem, has now paid up.
Some of the low-paid women had called their union in tears but, he said, they kept working.
Mr Knutsen, who was born in Tulse Hill in London in 1957, moved to Brighton in 1963. He said: “My younger sister has got a learning disability. We moved down because there was a really good school for her here – Penny Gobby.
“I went to St Luke’s and then to Lewes Old Grammar which taught me all about class. I wasn’t their class! That’s how I got into politics. So I spent a lot of time in the library reading.”
He lives in Hollingdean and is married with a 22-year-old daughter and two step-children, also in their twenties.
His political friends and foes alike regard him as open, straight talking and pragmatic.
One said: “He fights his corner and doesn’t give any quarter but he’s not aggressive.”
With the row about the cost of union officials still raging – Councillor Theobald is taking it up with ministers – Mr Knutsen could be forgiven for citing the L’Oreal slogan: “Because I’m worth it.”
Instead he settles for: “We will save immense amounts of money for the taxpayer.”
He believes that this makes the modest cost of his team a price well worth paying.
Brighton and Hove City Council said that it had budgeted £146,000 for union support in the coming financial year. This is £2,000 more than in the current financial year.
The money supports the equivalent of 8.2 full-time staff from five unions
- Unison – 5.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff
- GMB – 2.35 FTE
- ATL – 0.3 FTE
- NUT – 0.2 FTE
- NASUWT – 0.15 FTE