STRIKE action is being threatened at a North council over plans to axe cash allowances paid to employees who use their own cars for work.
Bosses at Northumberland County Council want to save money by doing away with the annual lump sum allowances – ranging from £850 to £1,200 – paid to hundreds of essential car users.
They also plan to reduce the mileage rate paid to the employees, such as social workers, planning officials, animal health inspectors, mobile caretakers, admin assistants and school support officers, who use their own cars to perform their duties.
Now members of the Unison and GMB unions have voted in a ballot to take industrial action in protest at the controversial proposals, which were first revealed more than a year ago.
The ballot revealed 70% support for strike action and 80% backing for action short of a strike – which could include staff withdrawing the use of their cars for work purposes.
The unions are now waiting for a response from council bosses before consulting members on when, and in what form, action should be taken.
It was revealed in January last year that the council wanted to save £700,000 by taking away the allowances and cutting mileage payments for about 750 employees. Unions say the number of staff affected by the proposal has fallen to between 400 and 500 now.
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.
“The council will save money by taking away the allowances and changing the mileage rate, but it won’t be any cheaper in the long run if they have to bring in lease cars and pay for bus passes.”
Ian Fleming, branch secretary for Unison, said: “Some of these staff, like animal health inspectors, are going up and down farm tracks using their own car. At the moment, council workers are not getting a pay increase, or are being made redundant, and slashing these car allowances is just another cut.”
Labour group leader Grant Davey said: “It seems this Liberal Democrat administration is keen to provoke industrial action, and is intent on preparing the ground for the privatisation of council services.”
A spokeswoman said the county council had reviewed its essential car user allowance scheme and decided, after consultation with trade unions and staff, that it should be withdrawn with effect from September 30, 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,” she said.
“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.”