More than 300 employees of Northern Powergrid are set to vote on industrial action over pay and changes to their contract terms.
In a preliminary consultative ballot, held jointly between the GMB, Unite and Unison unions, the workers unanimously rejected an offer made by the company.
The possibility of industrial action - which one union organiser said could have an “astronomical impact” - is now to go to an official ballot.
Papers are to be sent out to members on July 20, with the ballot closing on August 10. If the unions vote to press ahead, a walk-out could take place as early as August 14 - although no decision has yet been made on how long this would be for.
Northern Powergrid runs the electricity distribution network that provides power to customers in the North East, Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire.
The Newcastle-headquartered business directly employs over 2,200 people, with many of those involved in the ballot believed to be based at offices in Shiremoor and Middlesbrough.
It is understood the company’s industrial section, involved in hands-on work such as carrying out repairs, has accepted a pay offer already, but that those within the Professional & Administration (P&) group have not.
Following months of talks between management and the unions, objections remain on two main points, according to the GMB - firstly, the introduction of a call-out clause to contracts that would mean those previously working steady day-time hours could be called out at more unsociable times when required; and secondly a ‘cap and collar’ arrangement on potential pay rises, with the minimum being set at 1% and the maximum at 2%.
Stephen Thompkins, regional organiser for the GMB, pointed out that, while Northern Powergrid’s industrial group was predominately made up of men, the P&A division was made up mainly of women, many of whom do not drive or who have commitments outside of their usual work hours that make such overtime impractical.
It had been suggested, he said, that a voluntary agreement on call-outs would be sufficient, but this was rejected by the company.
“Members clearly feel there’s no alterative but to take action on this, and of course that could have massive ramifications,” Mr Thompkins said.
“They may decide on one-day action or go all-out, which could have an astronomical impact.
“Perhaps if there had been a decent pay offer, it might have been different, but in this instance it would have been rejected on that basis alone.
“Union members right across the board say that - in their own words - they are being treated like second-class citizens.
“They believe it is time to stand up and fight.”
A Northern Powergrid spokeswoman, however, said the offer made to P&A staff would have meant salaries and benefits were comparable to similar roles throughout the North East, while ensuring the business could respond effectively in events such as the recent lightning strikes, which affected around 55,000 of its customers.
“We have not received any formal notification from the three unions representing some of our non-operational, professional and administration staff of any plans to hold a ballot for strike action,” the spokeswoman added.
“We are very disappointed that our offer, which we felt was fair and reasonable in the current climate, was rejected.
“We remain available for talks with the unions at any time to explore opportunities for a resolution.”
The company offered reassurances that failure to agree a new deal with the affected employees would have no impact on operations in the immediate future.
Customers and stakeholders would be kept informed of developments.