Strike threat as unions accuse council of breaking promises

City Hall. Photo: Nick Butcher.

The results of the ballot over strike action at Norwich City Council's newly formed company will be known next week. - Credit: EDP pics © 2007

The results of a ballot over whether workers for a new company set up by Norwich City Council will strike are due next week - amid union claims of broken promises.

Some 400 workers, employed by Norfolk County Council-owned company Norse, are transferring to an arms-length company run by the Labour-controlled city council.

Norwich Thai Festival is being held Eaton Park. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2018

The Norwich City Services Ltd workers maintain parks and clean the city's streets. - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The first set of workers transferred from Norwich Norse Environmental to Norwich City Services Ltd on April 1. That includes staff who maintain the city's parks and clean the streets. More services are due to transfer in the coming years.

But members of Unite and Unison unions, who had already signalled they would take strike action in an indicative ballot, are voting in a full ballot, with results due on Tuesday, May 4.

The unions say, prior to transfer, they held meetings with council leader Alan Waters and city council officer Anton Bull.

They say they were told the new service would be significantly different to Norse, and that it would work with the unions to harmonise pay and conditions with city council colleagues.

Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council. Pic: Jeff Taylor.

Alan Waters, Labour leader of Norwich City Council. - Credit: Archant

But the unions say they have had a letter from Hannah Leys, managing director of the Norwich City Services board, stating "it is not our goal to aim for the harmonisation with Norwich City Council terms and conditions".

The unions tabled an initial 5.5pc / 6.5pc pay claim and sought three months full and three month half sick pay. City council workers get six and six. They also wanted the same annual leave as city council workers.

The council's offer is for a 2pc increase, an increase of an extra day's holiday for workers who currently get 20 days leave and four weeks full and four weeks half sick pay.

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The council says workers will get improved pensions, but the unions question why the package is for workers and the company to each pay in 3pc, when the service will pay 5pc into the pension pot for senior managers.

This newspaper put a string of questions to Norwich City Council and to leader Alan Waters.

The council issued a statement, rather than responding directly to each question asked, including those about pension arrangements and whether it agreed the unions had been told the goal was to work towards harmonisation.

A spokesperson for Norwich City Council: “We are disappointed by the response to the improved pay offer for those colleagues who recently transferred to the council’s new company.

“We have kept our promise that the company will improve the terms and conditions of staff.

"This pay offer places the workforce of the new company on better terms and conditions on day one of joining the company compared to the terms and conditions they previously had as part of the Norse joint venture.

"This includes an average 2pc pay increase; alongside improvements to sick pay, holiday and call out rates.

“We have also been very clear that this is the first step of the company’s roadmap that will see regular reassessments of what further improvements can be made.

"These decisions will be tied to the success of the company.

“The company will continue to work constructively with the trade unions to ensure NCSL is successful in delivering what it needs to – not only for its staff but also for the city’s residents who rely on us to keep essential services going.”

Mr Waters has not added to the council's statement, but had written to Labour members about the issue and to workers, urging them not to strike.

In the letter to workers, he said: "I know that people are saying that they were expecting more.

"But I was clear from the start, I would only agree to terms and conditions and pay that we could afford.

"I would not cut jobs and services in other parts of the council or in Norwich City Services Ltd to pay for something we could not afford.

"I have always said that we will work with the company and the unions to plan how we could make things better in the future, but to do that would need time.

"A strike could damage the success of the company and its reputation and make it harder to continue to improve terms and conditions over time."

Union representatives in Norwich

Unite regional officer, Adam Oakes and Jonathan Dunning, Unison Norfolk branch secretary. - Credit: Unite/Unison

But Jonathan Dunning, Norfolk branch secretary for Unison, said promises "had been reneged upon".

He said: ""We are disappointed they continue to miss the point of this dispute.

"We don't believe they kept their promises to the trade unions and our members before the transfer took place, where the absolute goal was to get to the same pay and conditions that city council staff were on as a step towards returning the services in-house."

He said the council was missing the point in comparing terms and conditions to what workers were on at Norse, rather than to those within City Hall.

Green city councillor Jamie Osborn said it was "astonishing" to see a Labour council going "head to head" with its lowest paid workers.

He said: "Green councillors are calling on the council to show the political will to resolve this dispute and make conditions for frontline workers its priority.

"Greens firmly believe that all staff deserve equal rights and there should not be a two-tier work force."