Social workers striking over salary cuts in Southampton are only doing it because they are on full pay from unions, the Conservative council leader has said.
Royston Smith claimed local Unison and Unite branches were giving those on strike full pay in an effort to punish the council for stepping outside of nationally agreed terms and conditions – an allegation strongly refuted by the unions.
The war of words began after social workers in Southampton became the first in the country to go on strike today following government public spending cuts.
The council has to find £75m of savings over the next four years. It has proposed pay cuts for all staff earning over £17,500 a year on a sliding scale of up to 5.5% for those earning over £65,000 a year.
Smith said the cuts would protect 400 jobs.
“[Council staff] are all being paid full pay by the unions,” he said. “They admit that every time we talk to them. The hardship pay is being paid by the national union and the rest is being made up locally by Unison and Unite. They’re spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on this.”
However, Andy Straker, Unison regional organiser, strongly denied this. He said: “They are not on strike because we are paying them strike pay or hardship pay, they are on strike because of the crass decisions [Smith] is making on a daily basis.”
Unison pays members £15 a day in strike pay and will pay hardship pay on top of that, depending on individual circumstances. Straker said some staff may be receiving as much as their usual salary, but this was not a blanket policy.
Meanwhile talks are still deadlocked. “I’m not sure we are very close at all to a resolution now,” said Smith. “They said if we made progress on the discussions, which we have, they would suspend strikes, but here we are.”
“For example, we have agreed to look at the levels and the ways in which people will take their pay cuts. When you get a 4.5% pay cut you get five days extra paid leave. Now we are saying perhaps we can do something around that, such as have people working flexibly or taking some extra unpaid leave – that’s progress. They said it was progress, I agree that it’s progress, but they continue with the strike action.”
“[The unions] are not as good as their word,” he added.
But Straker said he had never promised to postpone strike action as long as talks were ongoing. “If we thought there was any chance of coming to agreement we would call the strikes off, but we’re no further forward than we were on July 11,” he said.
Smith said some groups of workers felt their position was protected because of statutory requirements on the council to provide certain services and that these people were more readily going on strike to protect their pay at the cost of others’ jobs. However, he would not say if this included social workers.
Straker said he had not had a single member express this sentiment to him. He said: “[Smith] needs to stop looking for excuses as to why these strikes are happening and look at the real issues.”
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