Council workers issue strike threat after councillors cause uproar with pay freeze vote

ONE of Scotland's largest local authorities was on a collision course for strike action last night after councillors approved controversial proposals for a wage freeze which will affect two-thirds of its staff.

Members of the finance committee of cash-strapped Aberdeen City Council voted by ten votes to four to defer pay grade payments, totalling 4.5 million, due to 6,500 employees until April of next year.

And union leaders, who stormed out of the meeting, warned that should the decision be ratified at a meeting of the full council later this month, they will immediately move to challenge the pay freeze in the courts and call a ballot on possible strike action.

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Tommy Campbell, the regional organiser of the Unite union, branded the council's decision as "disgraceful". He said: "They should be ashamed themselves. They obviously don't care less about the staff and they proved that by their vote."

The vast majority of the staff involved in the decision to defer incremental pay increases, ranging from 300 to 1,000 a year, are women. And the trade unions plan to lodge claims against the council based on non payment of earnings and sex discrimination.

"We will fight them all the way," said Mr Campbell. "There will be groups of workers prepared to take industrial action. And if that is what they want that's what they'll have."

Earlier, John Stewart, the leader of the council, told the meeting that equal pay agreements had already cost the council more than 35m and added 10m to the annual wage bill.

He said: "I had hoped that our workforce and our unions would see this as reasonable one-off step to protect jobs in the short term. Clearly that is not what we are going to get."

He added: "I am not happy about deferring the payments for a year, but I do believe it is the simplest and the most honest way of dealing with the budgetary situation that we find ourselves in."

But Barney Crockett, leader of the opposition Labour Group, accused the administration of "declaring war" on its workforce.

Gordon Graham, another Labour councillor, said the council was treating its workforce with contempt. And he declared: "We have a moral duty to our employees – and that includes keeping our promises."

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Meanwhile, Shetland Islands Council yesterday agreed to consult on the closure of five primary and two secondary schools to save 6m from the authority's 42m education budget.

The schools are the secondary departments of Scalloway and Skerries schools and the primary schools in Uyeasound, Burravoe, Sandness, North Roe and Olnafirth.

Final decisions on the future of the secondary schools could be reached as early as December this year, while consultation on closing the five primary schools will not begin before 2011. The Scottish Government will have to approve any closure before it can go ahead.

The council's spokesman for education, Bill Manson, said the closures were overdue. And he continued: "I am glad that the council made a considered decision to look most carefully at the provision of education for the foreseeable future in Shetland.

"I think a realistic and sensible decision has been adopted, which should enable us to continue the high education standards."

But North isles councillor Robert Henderson accused the councillors of "ripping the heart" out of small rural communities. He declared: "The primary school is the heart of a community, and if you rip the heart out of a community you destroy something that you can never regain."