Guest Opinion: Serco Metrolink

When it comes to striking a deal with unions, benefits often take a backseat to pay. Yet perks can prove to be a powerful bargaining tool.

At Serco Metrolink, we have a single union agreement and do all of our negotiations through the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G). In recent years, we have tried to move the company forward and fulfil our corporate responsibilities by improving benefits for employees, rather than just focusing on salary. Historically, due to pressure from members, the union has nearly always had to negotiate a salary increase only.

However, this year, the firm approached the T&G and asked if it would be prepared to consider a package that is based on more than a salary increase. We were pleased to find that the organisation had changed its outlook. But while the union was receptive to hearing about the various benefits options, it nevertheless felt the matter needed to be discussed with members, because there would still be an impact on salaries. Our first tack was to offer individual benefit accounts, which would allow us to provide staff with an allowance.

Employees would either be able to withdraw the cash or, where possible, the company could use it’s spending power to offer discounted gym membership, childcare vouchers, or access to other local amenities such as cinemas or theatres. Employees would then get more for their money through the firm’s bulk buying power. Serco Metrolink saw the idea as potentially being good for retention, particularly as the package would increase with length of service. Despite these benefits, the individual benefit account was not seen as an easy option for the union to sell to its members.

Therefore, the firm decided that such an approach was too big a step to take at the moment, although it is something that we could all work on in the future, looking at how to get a traditional workforce to consider this new approach. While this idea was put on hold, the union was still keen to explore alternative options to those reviewed in previous years. One of these was increasing stakeholder contributions. The company’s final salary scheme was closed several years ago, and, until recently, the union did not have many members who had an interest in the stakeholder plan. For this reason, when the firm previously proposed increasing its contributions it was turned down in favour of salary increases.

Having recruited a considerable number of staff since the closure of the final salary scheme, the union recognises that the pension scheme is rising up the agenda for many members. And, despite the poor press that defined contribution (DC) pensions have traditionally received, Serco Metrolink’s DC contributions are now being recognised as an important benefit for staff. So in preparation for our pay and conditions negotiations next year, the firm will work even closer with the T&G.