CRIPPLING strike action could hit Newcastle City Council over pay cuts for hundreds of staff.
More than 5,000 workers are likely to get pay rises backdated to 2007 as the council attempts to bring in equal pay.
A report leaked to The Journal reveals the council is bracing itself for a bill of more than £24m to iron out inequalities in staff wages.
But 1,400 council workers could see their salaries drop under the proposals.
Unions say 700 of these employees could experience a pay cut of more than £2,500.
And headteachers will be told to raid their budgets to meet the cost of wage rises for non-teaching staff.
The city council is already making 510 workers redundant as part of its transformation programme in an effort to save £169m over five years.
Council bosses last night insisted thousands of workers will benefit from the scheme, part of a national “single status” agreement made in 1997.
The aim of the agreement was to end the gap between the pay of men and women in council jobs, which were either identical or required the same level of expertise or effort.
But unions argue staff should not lose out because of an increase in their colleagues’ pay packets and say they are prepared to ballot members for strike action if staff face pay cuts.
Kenny Bell, secretary for the Newcastle branch of Unison, said: “We think as a result of the introduction of equal pay no-one should have to take a pay cut and we will be mounting a vigorous campaign to make sure that is not the case.
“On top of all the turmoil we have been through with transformation that there are potentially hundreds of staff who could face a pay cut is ridiculous.
“Industrial action cannot be ruled out if we can’t come to a sensible solution.”
Equalling pay will cost the council £24.78m in back pay to April 2007, which was the deadline for bringing in equal pay, as well as annual costs. Thousands of staff should be in line for a pay rise, but others will lose out.
Schools will be hit with a £5.43m bill which will have to be met from their budgets.
Under the scheme there would be 5,370 workers who would get pay rises immediately and a further 2,408 who would eventually get higher pay as a result of the maximum pay level for their job going up.
Workers whose annual salaries will fall under the scheme would be offered three-year pay protection.
Paul Woods, the city council’s director of resources, said the council had already taken steps to make sure it had enough money to cover wage rises.
He said: “We have been working very hard to make the council more efficient. As long as this package is negotiated as set out it’s in line with the budget.
“There will be no obvious impact on services or council tax, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if this cost wasn’t there we would have been able to spend those resources on services, which we can’t. If any school has difficulty we, as a council will work with them to be able to spread the cost in the future.”
Peter Bower, acting director of corporate services, said: “This will substantially simplify the council’s pay structure and make it much fairer by putting everyone into a grade which is an objective assessment of their job in a gender unbiased way.
“We have worked very hard with the trade unions so this is something they will buy into.
“There were a whole range of people like care workers, clerical staff and cleaners who already had single status issues addressed in 2004. The people we’re talking about now are more the technical and professional grades.”
Nick Forbes, the city council’s opposition leader, said: “Coming on the back of hundreds of redundancies, if true these pay cuts would be a huge slap in the face for Newcastle City Council’s workforce. I hope that assurances will be given to staff through the negotiation processes so that no-one loses out financially in the long term.”
The council’s ruling executive will be asked today to support the proposals as a starting point for negotiation with unions, which should begin on December 1.
Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside councils have all completed their single status projects, but Sunderland has yet to start.