Angry staff force 'time out' on pay freeze but council denies U-turn

ONE of Scotland's largest local authorities yesterday backed down from imposing a pay freeze on its staff in the face of the threat of industrial and legal action by its furious workforce.

Aberdeen City Council had been expected to become the first local authority in Scotland to approve a moratorium on incremental pay grade rises for its staff. At least three other Scottish councils are understood to be considering similar action.

But yesterday, at a meeting of the full council, the Liberal Democrat and SNP administration of the cash-strapped authority drew back from rubber stamping its finance committee's recommendation to freeze the increases due to be awarded to two-thirds of its staff in a bid to save 4.5 million from this year's budget.

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In a surprise move, the administration voted to defer the threatened pay freeze until August to allow fresh negotiations with the trade unions.

Councillor Kevin Stewart, the deputy leader of the administration, denied suggestions that the deferral was a U-turn by the council. He claimed it represented a "time out" to find a way forward from the council's growing financial crisis.

Trade union leaders welcomed the decision to put the pay freeze on hold. But they revealed that protective claims had already been lodged against the pay freeze by more than 1,000 council staff with the employment tribunal offices in Aberdeen, based on non payment of earnings and sex discrimination.

Tommy Campbell, the regional organiser of the Unite union, warned: "We would rather negotiate. But if they continue with their pay freeze then we will go to court and we will also consider balloting our own members on whether they wish to go down the road of industrial action. The payments were due on 1 April."

Incremental pay rises are paid to staff on an annual basis until they reach the maximum for their specific grade.

Earlier Councillor Stewart told the meeting: "Nobody wants to trample over the trade unions and our staff. Let's have a little time out and see what we can try and come up with to try and resolve this impasse. It may well be that the trade unions will open up the discussions round about employment costs, including conditions of service"

But he warned: "If that doesn't happen then the alternative is, of course, more redundancies."

Councillor Stewart told the council: "We want to allow a period of time for officers to go round the table with the trade unions and look at the realities we are about to face. There is absolutely no point in any of us from either side burying our heads in the sand, thinking that money is going to fall from the heavens and resolve the problems that exist.

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"This is about trying to cooperate. It is about reasoning. It is about getting across to folk what the choices are for us as public sector body. And the same choices will have to be made across local authorities in Scotland and the UK."

Councillor John Stewart, the leader of the city council, underlined the need to find a way forward from the authority's budget crisis.

He said: "We have very difficult decisions to take over the next few years because we are facing unprecedented cuts in public spending through no fault of our own. We are in exceptional times and we have to be realistic about the financial situation in which we find ourselves.

"Delaying a decision on the increments will give more time for our officers to sit down with the trade unions to look at realistic ways to make the 4.5 million employment cost saving that we have to make. I would appeal to the trade unions and our staff to look again at the financial situation we are in, recognise its seriousness, and work with us to deliver the long-term, sustainable savings that we must deliver."

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