Scottish Borders Housing Association bosses this week denied a claim made by Unite union officials that they had not spoken for two years.
In a press release issued last week, the public-sector union claimed that tradesmen employed by the social landlords were ready to go to ballot for industrial action.
It also accused the association of not getting in touch with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) before the deadline of Monday, October 3, another claim denied by the Selkirk-based association.
Tony Trench, a regional officer for Unite, said: “We finally got the housing association to sit around a negotiating table after trying for two years.
“We had discussions with the association and with the conciliation service ACAS.
“Following that meeting, the association was supposed to get back to ACAS on Monday, October 3. They didn’t.
“Our members have been patient, but they won’t be patient forever.
“In a consultative ballot, more than 80% told us they would support industrial action. If the housing association doesn’t start serious negotiations soon, we will have no choice but to move to a formal legal ballot.”
However, Henry Coyle, director of assets and property services at the association, said it has been talking to local trade union reps and property service managers for several months.
He said: “We have held regular operational meetings between local trades union reps and managers in property services. These fortnightly meetings have subsequently been complemented by a series of strategic meetings, which regional union reps have also attended.
“As a result of these, we have brought a scheduled review of flexible working, modernising pay and working practices forward from 2018 to commence this month.
“One outcome of this will be a full review of the pay system and grading structure across the association.
“We have not failed to respond to Unite’s request. At the meeting with ACAS on September 26, which we attended at Unite’s invitation, we committed to respond to ACAS, on Unite’s request, within seven days and called ACAS on Friday, September 30.
“We agreed with ACAS to follow up with a written response and on the basis that ACAS’s facilitator was out of the office until Wednesday morning, we committed to have a written response on his desk for his return and have done so.”
Unite represents around 80 of the 91 tradesmen and labourers employed by the association.
The union is pushing for an increase to the implemented 1.1% pay award and for harmonisation of holidays and the working week across the association.
At the moment, the tradesmen work 37 hours a week, while some office staff work 35 hours a week and also receive a day’s holiday more a year.
Mr Coyle said he was disappointed to learn of Unite’s intention to ballot its members through a press inquiry.
He added: “We do not accept that the current package is unfair and inequitable.
“The package received by trade operatives and office-based staff contains terms and conditions aligned to their different working environments.
“For example, office-based staff do not receive an annual productivity bonus or work a rota day system. Unite negotiated this position for its members in 2009, and it has been of great benefit to them in recent years.”
The union and the association are also at loggerheads over the interpretation of a European Union ruling regarding journeys to and from jobs being counted as working time, as the latter insists that the ruling only relates to health and safety legislation.
Mr Coyle said that any increase in pay would mean an increase in tenants’ rent.
He said: “We have stressed that, as a not-for-profit organisation and registered charity, we must balance Unite’s requests against the needs of tenants, the requirements of the whole employee group, and the future viability and competitiveness of property services.
“To put into place all of Unite’s requests would mean that rents would have to be increased to unacceptable levels of a further 4%, or significant cuts in other services would have to be undertaken.
“We are unable to offer the further 1%, on top of the 1.1% already accepted, requested on September 26. Our pay increases over the last six years have amounted to 18.6% cumulatively, which compares very favourably to the 4.5% increase awarded in the same period under our previous pay scale, as operated by Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The property services team elected to move from these terms and conditions in 2009.”
We tried to contact Mr Trench this week to clarify claims made in his statement, but he had not returned our calls as we went to press.