County contingency plans for threat of strike action

The threat of industrial action in a dispute over car allowances has forced Northumberland County Council to put contingency plans in place.

The row stems from the council’s decision to axe an annual lump sum of between £850 and £1,200 which is paid to hundreds of employers who use their own cars for work.

In a further money-saving exercise, the authority also plans to cut the mileage rate its employees can claim while performing their duties.

Seventy per cent of Unision and General Municipal Boilermakers’ Union (GMB) members have now voted in favour of strike action, while 80 per cent backed action short of a strike.

The controversial proposals – thought to be affecting between 400 and 500 workers – were announced as far back as January last year, when the council revealed plans to save £700,000.

Precisely what form the action will take is yet to be consulted on by the unions, who are as of yet awaiting a response from the council.

A spokesperson for the local authority said: “Like many councils across the country, Northumberland County Council reviewed its essential car user allowance scheme and decided, after consultation with trade unions and staff, that the scheme should be withdrawn with effect from 30 September 2012.

“For those employees who had this as a contractual benefit, the council gave three years protection, so those employees will continue to receive the payment until autumn 2015.

“Trade unions have now balloted their members who were affected by the withdrawal of the scheme for strike action, although the council is not aware at the present time of what actual action is proposed.

“The council will of course make the necessary contingency plans to ensure services continue to be delivered.”

Mark Wilson, regional organiser with the GMB, said: “Our members have voted for industrial action, including strike action, so unless we can get round the table and resolve this, that is the likely outcome.

“We believe this is a cost-effective and sensible scheme to compensate people for using their own car for work purposes in such a large geographical area.

“Withdrawing the allowances is a major issue for our members.”

Talks are also being held this week to avert a strike at Netherton Park children’s home in Stannington.

The county council is proposing a re-organisation Unison says will slash the wages of those working with children and increase “top-heavy management”.

The council is said to have told trade unions that any industrial action would affect the wellbeing of the children and so it would have to consider using its emergency powers to protect the youngsters.

A council spokeswoman said: “We are not aware of any intention of staff taking formal industrial action.

“Discussions are ongoing with staff and trade union officials as part of a county council process. In the event of disruption to any council service, contingency plans would be applied.”

A spokesperson for the staff said: “You can only prey on our good nature for so long.

“We, the workforce, have children at home to feed and clothe as well as mortgages or ever rising rents, yet as well as a four-year pay freeze we are being asked to take a pay cut to balance the council’s books. We are prepared to strike if talks don’t resolve these issues.”