Workers to go on strike

Workers to go on strike

18 November 2020

WORKERS at Newry, Mourne and Down Council are set to take industrial action in early December.

Trade union members voted overwhelmingly last week to take action over inequalities of pay and terms and conditions.

Officials of GMB, NIPSA, SIPTU and UNITE were unable to say yesterday what date action would start and what form it would be as they still need to give council officials seven days’ notice.

However, relations between the unions and management have further soured with alleged complaints that the council moved last week to remove protected voluntary severance payments without trade union consultation.

The dispute has been running for over two years and stems from when the former Down District and Newry and Mourne councils were merged under reorganisation in 2015.

Unions claim that the promised harmonisation between the terms and conditions of workers from the two councils was never fully introduced and inequalities remained. 

A union spokesperson said: “Council workers are aware that Covid-19 has made 2020 a really hard year for the community in Newry, Mourne and Down. It is with regret that we are being forced to take this action in order to improve our pay and protect our terms and conditions.

“Although there will be limited action in December, our members will be escalating the dispute if the issues are not resolved, in January, 2021. It is in the management’s hands to resolve this dispute.”

He said that the four trade unions were united in their action and urged council management to address members’ “legitimate grievances and avoid an entirely unnecessary industrial dispute”.

“We are calling on local elected representatives to intervene and ensure that we avoid huge disruption in the midst of a pandemic.”

Hundreds of workers were balloted on the options on taking strike action and action short of strike action over the last few weeks.

The spokesperson said: “Since the ballots opened, council bosses have openly sought to remove TUPE protected voluntary severance entitlements and this has only further galvanised the determination of the workers to defend themselves.”

He said that the council was the only local authority left in Northern Ireland which had not resolved the pay differences and terms and conditions disparities arising from amalgamation.

He explained that aside for some refuse collectors in the legacy Newry and Mourne Council being paid £3,000 more that their legacy Down fellow workers, there was differing severance terms for workers.

While former Newry and Mourne workers had a voluntary severance agreement that would have offered them a 3.4 week multiplier payment for every year worked, the legacy Down council employees had a basic severance policy. 

A proposal to the Strategy, Policy and Resources committee last week, discussed privately without the public present, was approved by councillors which offered a general maximum 2.2 multiplier for both voluntary and compulsorily severance packages.

Trade unions claim that certain workers could lose up to £15,000 in severance under the new terms. 

NISPA regional organiser Kevin Kelly said: “Management did not negotiate with us about this rate. They just came up with it and expected everyone to accept it. 

“But there is a certain route and negotiations that have to be gone through in order to change a person’s contract but the council seem willing to just impose this.”

A council spokesperson said yesterday that work was continuing with the trade unions to reach agreement on agreeing further terms and conditions.

“aking into account the impact of Covid-19, the council has been considering the implementation of a voluntary severance scheme which would offer a generous redundancy package well above statutory redundancy pay,” the spokesperson said.

“Along with an enhanced redundancy payment, those employees aged over 55 but below normal retirement age will also receive their remaining pension benefits if they are accepted for voluntary redundancy.

“At the same time, the council has a responsibility to spend public money in the most responsible manner possible, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic when public finances are stretched, and the private sector is contracting and experiencing significant unemployment.”

The spokesperson said as “as custodians of public funding but also employers” the council’s focus was on providing a comfortable retirement for employees whilst at the same time being “cognisant of the rights of rate payers, many of whom are experiencing financial hardship and are not entitled to such generous redundancy packages”.

He added: “Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is committed to transparency and fairness to everyone employed by the organisation as well as delivering on our commitment to provide value for money for all our residents and ratepayers.”