Strike threat as council chiefs get tough on pay
Scotland faces an "autumn of discontent" caused by widespread industrial action after a breakdown of pay negotiations saw a three-year wage deal imposed on council workers.
About 150,000 staff will be given a rise this year before being forced to take a pay freeze until 2013, under an enforced pay settlement that is considerably less generous than a deal rejected by public service unions in the past few months. Council leaders from across Scotland said they had no option but to impose the deal on staff in order to help local authorities plan their budgets ahead of an anticipated squeeze on public sector spending across the UK.
But the three unions involved in the negotiations, which represent most council workers in Scotland, including bin men, classroom assistants and social workers, accused local authority chiefs of playing "dirty" and refused to rule out industrial action.
In doing so, the unions raised the prospect of large-scale strike action across Scotland that could see schools closed, rubbish go uncollected and disruption to local services such as social work, libraries and leisure centres.
Yesterday's decision means council staff will get a rise of 0.65 per cent this year, followed by a two-year freeze. In the deal offered to the unions earlier this year, staff would have had a 1 per cent rise this year, no increase in 2011-12 and a 0.5 per cent rise in 2012-13.
In previous years, workers rejected an offer, which was accepted by teachers and local authority management, that would have meant a 2.5 per cent rise in 2010-11.
At the start of this month, Unison joined the GMB and Unite in rejecting the latest offer, in a move that was branded the "politics of the madhouse" by the Tories. It came after the Independent Budget Review estimated councils could be forced to shed as many as 50,000 jobs in future years as they cope with budget cuts of up to 3.8 billion.
After the deal was snubbed, local authority umbrella body Cosla warned union intransigence could cost as many as 6,500 council jobs.
Speaking as he emerged from a Cosla meeting at which the pay offer was withdrawn, its human resources spokesman Councillor Michael Cook said: "We made a final offer to the trade unions four months ago. We are into September next week and councils need clarity to allow for forward financial planning and budget management.
"We hugely value our hard-working employees and on this basis made them an original offer which represented the absolute extremity of what councils could afford. We have tried everything we could to get the unions to realise the gravity of the financial pressures we face and our determination as far as possible to protect jobs and services.
"They have left us in an impossible position by failing to recognise the interests of their members. Councils are left with no option but to withdraw that offer and impose a settlement. The unions have to realise the unprecedented financial circumstances which the public sector, and local government in particular, finds itself."
But Alan McLuckie, of the GMB, said Cosla had "engineered the unions into this situation".
He said: "What they are doing, quite frankly, is dirty. As far as we are concerned, if they impose this, we won't recognise a three-year deal. If we take the 0.65 per cent this year, we are still free to go back and hit them for a wage rise next year and the following year. If the temperature is right and the mood of our members is right, we will take them on."
He confirmed industrial action was one of the options that would be discussed.
Jackson Cullinane, of Unite, accused Cosla of moving "in a wholly negative direction" and added: "They have left us with no other option but to consider consulting our members on potential industrial action."
The union's lead negotiator, Dougie Black, said: "Cosla had budgeted for 1 per cent this year but have chosen to impose a lower figure than the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition are prepared to pay public sector workers south of the Border. It is contemptible that they say they value public service workers. They can't possibly when they are reducing wages, taking an offer off the table and imposing something worth less."
Politicians criticised the breakdown in negotiations. Derek Brownlee, the Scottish Conservatives' finance spokesman said the unions "only had themselves to blame" after rejecting earlier deals. He added: "They are being completely unrealistic about the hugely difficult economic times we face and it is time they saw sense. The fact is that a pay freeze will mean fewer job losses, whereas continual pay rises at this time will cost jobs."
Labour's local government spokesman Michael McMahon said Scottish Government ministers could help the negotiations by clarifying the position on the council tax freeze.
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