Britain’s three largest trade unions have warned councils against a copycat escalation in anti-union tactics after politicians in Plymouth barred Unison from talks in a dispute over budget cuts.
The Conservative-run city council derecognised Unison and locked its representatives out of negotiations after failing to agree an overhaul of staff pay and conditions to save £18m. The move prompted Unite and the GMB to pull out of the deal.
The council had planned to go ahead with unilateral contract changes for thousands of staff this week but put the process on hold in the hope of reaching a compromise.
Union leaders are concerned about the tactics of council leaders as they cope with cuts in central government funding.
Southampton city council has fired more than 4,000 staff and then re-hired them on lower pay and different conditions, in a move being copied by Shropshire council and Birmingham city council.
A Unison spokeswoman said she hoped other councils would see that barring unions would only lead to a more protracted dispute: “The lesson is that it is a bad idea all-round. Other councils will see that the negative impact is not worth the risk.”
Unite and the GMB responded to the Unison derecognition by refusing to finalise a deal over the contractual changes, which include alterations to overtime and maternity pay.
Unite’s national officer for local government, Peter Allenson, feared that other councils, striving to cut millions of pounds from their budgets, would follow suit.
“It is always worrying when you start to see employer behaviour developing that could become a trend. We have already seen the dismissal and re-engagement tactics that started in Southampton. We condemn the situation in Plymouth, which is quite complex, but derecognition is a retrograde step,” he said.
Brian Strutton, the GMB’s national secretary for public services, said Plymouth’s tactics would fail. “I can understand Plymouth council’s frustration which led them to derecognise Unison and try to do a deal with GMB and Unite but it was a naive and, in my opinion, unlawful plan.
“Unions will not be complicit in each others’ derecognition and Plymouth were mistaken to believe we would be.”
By derecognising Unison last month, Plymouth has barred the union from its offices and from taking part in collective bargaining. GMB, Unison and Unite members had balloted for changes to pay and conditions but Unison said the turnouts were small and the agreement was riddled with legal uncertainties.
The council said the proposed changes, which include alterations to overtime and maternity pay, were part of a wider package to save £18m over three years.
The new agreements were due to be imposed on Wednesday, but the council announced it was allowing extra time in the hope of reaching a deal with the unions. A spokesman confirmed Unison remained derecognised.
“We have received written correspondence from Unison officials in response to the council’s derecognition to which we have now responded,” the council said in a statement. “We have consistently said we are prepared to talk to Unison. We are unable to comment further.”
Unions are responding to public spending cuts with their own tactical innovations, in an unfolding game of cat-and-mouse with government bodies. At Southampton, Unison and Unite have orchestrated walkouts that have focused on revenue-generating services such as the city port and toll collection.
Unions representing NHS employees are considering “smart” strike action in the autumn that would maintain levels of service and guarantee patient safety but could see the cancellation of elective surgeries and non-crucial appointments.
The growing conflict between trade unions and local authorities has echoes of a showdown in the US earlier this year, when tens of thousands of demonstrators staged protests in Wisconsin against what they claimed was the most sustained “union-bashing” measures proposed in decades.
Opponents said the state had become a test-bed for Republicans attempting to push a radical anti-labour agenda – seeking to remove union rights and cut benefits in states facing huge holes in their budgets.
Unions, backed by Barack Obama, mobilised workers throughout the country. Anti-tax activists including Tea Party advocates launched counter-protests.
Opponents said the Republicans provoked the Wisconsin confrontation by trying to pass legislation to remove the collective bargaining rights of an estimated 300,000 workers, ranging from teachers to prison guards.