Strike threat over council pay changes

UNION leaders this week threatened strike and legal action over cuts in pay for new council employees.

Three unions representing more than 2,000 current manual, office and home care staff condemned Scottish Borders Council’s decision, taken behind closed doors, to change terms and conditions, meaning less money for new staff from January 1.

Unite’s Tony Trench said: “There is total anger as to why the council should go ahead and do something like this.”

He criticised SBC for a lack of consultation with unions and threatened legal action.

Councillors agreed unanimously to remove overtime pay for weekend working, reduce the extra money paid for night working, and introduce ‘spot grades’ – abolishing a sliding scale of pay – for new employees at a meeting in private last month. Existing staff’s terms and conditions remain the same.

A council spokesman said: “The working environment has changed significantly over the last decade. Weekend working and shift flexibility is the norm in many industries and this eliminates the requirement to pay an allowance for working on a Saturday or Sunday.”

Mr Trench, representing more than 1,000 council workers, said: “We are disgusted. The stewards are really angry. It could lead to strike action, but it’s early doors. We believe there is a legal challenge to this. This will reduce people’s earning power. It’s a big issue, this is not just going to affect the workers at the council, this will affect the whole community.”

This week unions Unite, Unison and GMB were telling their members about the changes and discussing what action to take.

Meanwhile the SBC spokesman said the local authority had consulted with the unions. He said: “For a considerable time ongoing discussions have taken place with the trade unions regarding pay containment and workforce flexibility. The intention to take the proposals to council for approval was discussed with the unions on November 15, 2012, and there were no concerns raised at that time.”

But Unison’s Janet Stewart, who represents over 840 office staff and home carers, said: “My clear understanding is that it was mentioned in passing in a 20-minute presentation (on November 15). There was certainly no detail given about different pay grades or different terms and conditions. It certainly didn’t flag up any alarm bells with anybody at that time. The minute of the meeting by the council makes no mention of it.”

GMB’s Dominic Allen, representing 200 SBC staff, agrees: “The joint trade unions were not provided details or timeframes.”

Union representatives learned details of the changes – which also alter holidays and sick pay – two days before the decision was taken, said Ms Stewart. And she wrote to council leader David Parker and all other SBC councillors on behalf of the three unions asking for the decision to be delayed so “meaningful discussion” could take place, but only heard back from Mr Parker when it was a fait accompli.

She said: “This appears to be very clearly SBC breaking away from national bargaining. CoSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) claim they were completely unaware of this.

“We believe there are potential equal pay claims: when someone new starts they will never be able to make the same amount of pay the person next door to them can. We have warned SBC about this.”

And potentially, under other agreed employment regulation, existing employees’ pay could drop to the same lower level as their newer colleagues in coming years, she said.

Mr Allen condemned councillors for creating a two-tier council: “The existing workers are going to be on better terms and conditions. If you are employed at the same skill level to do the same job as somebody else you should be getting the same rate of pay. And it will impact directly on existing workers and their ability to get overtime or weekend or night-time work. If you’ve got a guy on £10 an hour for example and another on £5 an hour, you’re going to go for the bloke on £5 an hour every time.”

Asked why the council made the cuts, the spokesman said: “Over the last five years the council has made significant changes to contain pay. The continued challenging financial climate, coupled with the fact that 60 per cent of the net revenue budget is absorbed by staff costs, requires fundamental changes in terms and conditions of employment and workforce flexibility to ensure the council can continue to sustain requisite levels of service and be competitive and affordable in terms of staff costs.”

He said the decision was taken in private because under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 the discussion involved information on labour relations matters to do with the council and staff.