A SENIOR Labour councillor will today offer peace talks in the hope of resolving a dispute which has led to council staff launching industrial action.
Labour – which is now the biggest political group on Northumberland County Council following last week’s elections – says it wants to open fresh discussions with trade unions in a bid to avoid strikes.
Last month, members of Unison and the GMB voted to take industrial action, including striking, over controversial plans to axe allowances paid to employees who use their own cars for work.
Unison is holding a mass rally at County Hall in Morpeth at lunchtime today, and has asked other council workers to turn out and support their colleagues.
The rally will be addressed by Labour group leader Grant Davey who will offer a new round of talks with the unions, with no pre-conditions and options open for both sides.
Last night, Coun Davey said: “This industrial action can be avoided, and we want to show that we can achieve more for residents of the county by sitting down and discussing the essential car user allowance in the round.
“That’s why we’re proposing that we sit down anew and start with a clean slate. That means we draw a line under the conflict and work together to come up with a solution that is fair to staff and tax payers alike.”
Union members voted for industrial action after the council decided to terminate its essential car users allowance scheme.
The cost-cutting move involves doing away with annual lump sum allowances – ranging from £850 to £1,200 – paid to hundreds of workers who use their own cars to perform their duties.
It also involves reducing the mileage rate paid to employees such as social workers, planning officials, animal health inspectors, mobile caretakers, admin assistants and school support officers. The unions say the move affects between 400 and 500 staff, and last month’s ballot showed 70% support for strike action and 80% backing for action short of a strike.
A leaflet issued by Unison, canvassing support for today’s rally, says the council effectively wants to make employees pay for using their own cars for work.
It says: “We understand the financial constraints on the county council, but we do not accept our members should be out of pocket to maintain their own vehicles for their job for the council.”
The council says it reviewed its essential car user allowance scheme and decided, after consultation with trade unions and staff, that it should be withdrawn from September last year.
Unison’s branch secretary, Ian Fleming, said the car allowance scheme was essential in a county as large as Northumberland. We’re pleased to be able to discuss new ideas to make the policy fairer. We’re also pleased that Grant Davey is going to speak directly to our members at tomorrow’s meeting, and confident the council and residents will benefit from a new working relationship.”