Trade unions could ballot members on potential strike action – after council chiefs backed controversial plans to cut workers’ pay.
Members of the GMB, Unison and Unite unions staged a noisy demonstration against Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s £9.2 million budget cuts on Wednesday, shortly before cabinet members voted in favour of the proposals.
One of the cuts would see reductions in the extra payments for working weekends and unsociable hours, in order to save £934,000.
The cabinet members insist that difficult decisions have to be made in order to balance the budget, following funding cuts and rising demand for services such as social care.
But union officials say the cuts would result in around 1,000 low-paid workers such as care staff losing up to £5,000 a year. They are demanding that council chiefs make savings elsewhere – or else face the possibility of industrial action.
Around 100 trade union members took part in the protest outside Stoke Town Hall, chanting slogans such as ‘no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts’.
Unison regional organiser Tony Jones said: “After Christmas the council came back and said they’d need to make more cuts, not only to services but to our members’ pay.
“Our members who are affected by these proposals are the lowest paid, and it can be anything up to a 20 per cent cut to their salary – between £3,000 and £5,000. For some, it’d a double whammy, because we have husband and wife teams that work for the council in the same service, so their households will face a double cut. This could lead to repossessions of properties and put people in dire financial straits.
“We’ve had the austerity measures over the last 10 years, where front line services have been cut to the bone. Some of these people are now doing the job that two or three people were doing before. Now they’re being asked to do that for 20 per cent less pay.
“Around 600 members have attended our meetings, and they have given us a firm mandate: enough is enough. They’re not prepared to have their salaries cut any further.
“We have come up with alternative proposals, such as managing their overtime bill, which is huge, and not appointing consultants on £1,000-a-day. They could make huge savings.
“If the council determine that these cuts will be imposed, we will be balloting our members on what action they would like to take, and that will possibly include strike action.”
Stuart Richards, senior organiser for GMB, said: “We’ve had two emergency budgets in less than a year, and each one has hit the lowest paid workers in the council. It’s not acceptable. It’s got to the point where they’re not willing to put up with it.
“We will try and see if we can reach some sort of compromise, but the bottom line is that we’re not going to accept the proposals as they currently stand. If the council agrees to these proposals then we will be looking at some sort of action.”
Following their protest dozens of union members piled into the council chamber to watch the cabinet meeting, with some angrily heckling the authority’s leaders.
Conservative council leader Abi Brown defended the budget proposals, but said she recognised the need for more sustainable government funding for council services.
She said: “Sadly I don’t have a direct line to Boris but I would like to reassure residents that I never, ever waste any opportunity to lobby for investment in our city. In the last six weeks I have met three secretaries of state who are responsible for vital services in this city and I have impressed on each of them the importance of support for Stoke-on-Trent.
“However, there is a difference between lobbying for additional resources and actually ensuring that what you have is well spent, and managing the business will always be at the centre of my approach to make sure we continue to be sustainable and provide the services that our residents need.”
City Independent cabinet member Randy Conteh said he would be supporting the budget ‘with a heavy heart’.
He said: “You have to make those difficult decisions when you have cuts in government funding. We’ve had to save £220 million over the last seven or eight years.
“I’m conscious that suggestions have been put forward in terms of overtime and consultants. But the reality is they’re normally one-off savings and we have to balance the budget over the next few years.”
Two budget cuts, involving changes to Meir Library and the SENDIASS service, have now been amended following consultation.
But the union members reacted angrily to the cabinet’s vote in favour of the proposals, with some shouting ‘shame on you’ as they left the chamber.
The budget, which also includes a 3.99 per cent council tax hike, will now go to a meeting of the full council on February 27 for final approval.