War of words between council and unions

Scottish Borders Council headquarters in Newtown St Boswells.
Scottish Borders Council headquarters in Newtown St Boswells.

A war of words has broken out after Scottish Borders Council accused a union of making ‘absolutely unfounded’ allegations regarding an upcoming strike. 

Council road workers are set to down tools on Thursday August 29 in response to changes to the terms and conditions of summer standby payments. 

Currently, summer standby for Scottish Borders Council’s road workers is voluntary, but council chiefs are trying to make this mandatory, in line with other sections of the council.

A statement released by Unite, announcing the strike and the reasons behind it, reads: “Unite will hold a day of industrial action on the 29th of August to coincide with the full meeting of Scottish Borders Council to ensure elected representatives and officials fully understand the anger of our members.

“The workers in the roads department have been treated with contempt and the latest efforts by the council to draft in contracted workers to cover workers taking action is disgraceful.

“Instead of positively engaging with the workers and Unite, the council seem intent on escalating the dispute. Unite will explore every legal avenue to challenge this aggressive action.

“Unite also believes that there is a strong legal case that workers are being offered unlawful financial inducements to break the existing collective bargaining agreements.

“If this is the case, then Scottish Borders Council could end up facing a legal bill for more than £160,000, which is a fraction of the cost required to settle this dispute.

“Unite would, once again, urge Scottish Borders Council to get back round the negotiating table to settle this dispute, which we believe can be easily achieved if councillors swiftly intervene.”

In response, the council’s chief executive Tracey Logan has released a statement of her own. 

It reads: “Some of the allegations made by Unite about the planned strike by a small number of roads department staff on August 29 are absolutely unfounded and cannot be left unchallenged.

“The council has not changed terms and conditions for this staff group, nor have we failed to consult the trade unions or the staff affected. “In fact, we discovered some months ago that a small number of staff in this section had been claiming a higher rate of overtime than they were entitled to under the agreed terms and conditions. 

“They were also claiming for time to travel to work when working weekend overtime, which again is not in line with the agreement in place.

“Given that Unite agreed to these terms and conditions, I am surprised and disappointed that they now want some of their members to be given more favourable pay rates than others, and for this small group be able to claim additional allowances that their other members cannot.

 “It is a principle of fairness and equality for staff across the whole workforce and one which I would expect Unite as representatives of staff to uphold and commit to.”

 “The council has significant legal responsibilities in emergency situations as a category one responder under the civil contingencies act.

 “As such, the council took on board the concerns raised within this small group of roads department staff regarding standby commitments and had offered a voluntary option regarding contractual standby at an enhanced rate to them and their peers. This was offered to all appropriate staff, including those who plan to strike.

 “All the trade unions were aware that this proposal was going to be offered to staff to ensure individuals’ work life balance was respected.

 “After many years of positive relationships with the trade unions and the council, Unite representatives have made their unwillingness to participate in the collective bargaining process very clear on a number of occasions.

 “However, we will continue to engage with the trade union and are confident that our contingency plans are utilising all legal means to ensure that our day-to-day service is not significantly impacted. 

“We can categorically state that no agency workers have, or will be, employed by the council within this department during the industrial action.”

A spokesperson for Unite said: “There is no implication, we are stating that Scottish Borders Council are using contractors to carry out the work that would be undertaken by Unite members. 

“That is not agency workers which are prohibited during industrial action. There is a legal distinction. 

“Bringing in contracted workers is not illegal. What we also said in relation to ‘inducements’ is clearly outlined in our quote where we say that we ‘believe that there is a strong legal case that workers are being offered unlawful financial inducements to break the existing collective bargaining agreements’. 

“Again, we state that we are exploring the legal case for this.”

The strike is set to coincide with the first meeting of Scottish Borders Council following its summer break, and a demonstration will be held at the authority’s Newtown St Boswells headquarters.