Saturday, February 24, 2024

COUNCIL OFFICIALS IN BID TO AVOID LONG STRIKES

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Council makes moves to avert bins chaos

ARDS and North Down Council officials are to sit down for crunch talks with unions over the next two weeks, hoping to fend off massive strikes. They want to negotiate a solution to ongoing pay disputes that saw huge disruption across the borough in spring, and right now have workers manning the picket lines in one of Northern Ireland’s other council districts.

 But speaking privately, councillors aren’t optimistic they can thrash out a deal with the three main unions currently threatening industrial action. Councillors worry that they wouldn’t be able to meet all of the unions’ demands without imposing rates rises, something that’s an obvious concern for politicians ahead of next year’s elections.

They add that unless they can come to a mutually acceptable compromise with unions, one balancing staff demands with council cost concerns, workers across the borough may start downing tools in the coming weeks. That’s the outcome of a behind closed doors emergency meeting of the council on Tuesday night, during which officials were authorised to get around the negotiating table with union representatives.

Talks will happen over the next couple of weeks, with a report on their progress delivered to the council’s main meeting at the end of this month – though that report will also likely be discussed behind closed doors. The unions – GMB, Unite and NIPSA – have all balloted Ards and North Down Council staff asking them to vote for industrial action after attempts to negotiate wage rises in the middle of a cost of living crisis stalled.

 Union reps have demanded that wages go up by more than 10% to keep pace with inflation, and also want a one-off hardship payment of £1,000 to each member of staff in recognition of the work they did to keep essential frontline services going during pandemic lockdowns. Until Tuesday night, the council kept pointing to a wage offer from a UK-wide employer body as the only deal on the table. The UK-wide body’s offer does not include the hardship payment, but would see a salary increase of just under £2,000 for all employees – the equivalent of an 11% rise for the lowest paid council staff, or 2% for senior officials on Ards and North Down Council’s highest salaries. Sources say that council officials have now been authorised to negotiate on the hardship payment as well as potentially tweaking conditions for workers, though the UK-wide wage offer is still at the centre of the council’s position.

However, councillors are worried about the cost of any local deals, and are already concerned about rate rises that may be needed to pay for the salary offer. Any big rate increases would kick in at the start of April next year – coming not only after what promises to be a tough winter for everyone as the cost of living crisis deepens, but also only one month before next year’s council elections. That has politicians worried about losing their seats if they have to crank rates up across the board to meet the demands of their own staff – though, it’s fair to say, they’re also worried about the reaction to widespread strikes in the run-up to the election.

Unions last went on strike in this district in March of this year, resulting in bin collections being cancelled for a week while the borough’s biggest Household Recycling Centre was shut down. The council put little in place to limit the impact of industrial action and only announced that the strike was happening on social media over the weekend before it began, leading to shock and anger across the borough. This week a similar pay dispute in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon district erupted into a four week strike, wiping out public services as unions manned picket lines after last-ditch negotiations with that council broke down.

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