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Unions in ‘formal dispute’ with ABC Council as new threat of industrial action looms

The unions have 'little trust or confidence in senior management' and accuse some councillors of 'attacking' members on social media, as they warn failure to enter conciliation will lead to 'balloting members for action'

Armagh station Road recycling centre rubbish bins

Trade unions have lodged a formal dispute with Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council on behalf of staff over a range of issues which they say have sullied relationships, Armagh I can reveal.

The Joint Trade Unions Side (JTUS) – NIPSA, Unite and GMB – said the situation has become so bad that they have “little trust of confidence in senior management, a position shared by our membership”.

There was major disruption last year when workers walked out over pay and local conditions. Rubbish was left piled at recycling centres and bags in city and town centres, as bins went un-emptied for a prolonged period. Leisure centres and other venues and attractions were forced to close, while services were severely affected.

Now the unions are calling for conciliation – through the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) – to address their grievances. This, the JTUS says, is “in order for this not to escalate into industrial action”.

But if this is not done, there could be a return to action similar to last year which brought the borough to a standstill and caused a health and safety issue across the area.

The dispute letter – sent to ABC Council chief executive Roger Wilson and seen by Armagh I – warns: “Failure to agree with this request will lead to each of the unions balloting their members for action.

“This action will include the withdrawal of goodwill and a work to rule in line with our previous dispute.”

Some of the claims levelled at council include a tendency by senior management to ignore staff opinions and to impose its own decisions without consultation.

There have also been allegations of councillors using “social media and other forums” to “attack” union members.

The letter says that there has been a breakdown in relationships when it had, in fact, been hoped the situation would improve after last year’s industrial action was eventually called off.

The letter to Mr Wilson states: “It is with concern that I have to write formally regarding issues that have lead us to dispute. JTUS were hopeful that following the period of prolonged industrial unrest that ultimately lead to strike action that we would now be in position to heal the wounds suffered by all sides.

“However, it is clear that following a change in senior management relationships have actually deteriorated. It has become so bad that JTUS have little trust or confidence in senior management, a position shared by our membership.

“This position and opinion was not taken lightly or without overwhelming proof.”

The JTUS say they have “clear examples of the contempt” of management to the negotiating forums.

The letter alleges that “management have decided to obstruct the implementation of structures agreed via RPA despite this being part of the dispute” and adds: “This will not be left unchallenged by JTUS. These structures were agreed many years ago and are partially implemented most notably at the higher levels within the organisation.”

The JTUS says it has been “given the rationale of cost savings with underlying threats of redundancies”, to the point where, they claim there was an attempt to put in place a “vacancy control procedure”.

“This was a change in policy with no consultation and therefore certainly not agreed by JTUS,” the letter adds.

JTUS further claim that “when challenged about this policy and unilateral decision”, senior management refused to meet the unions.

The unions, in their correspondence, state: “It is clear no consultation is becoming the norm and culture within ABC. If this is allowed to continue all of our good work over the years will be destroyed in a matter of months.

“The term your opinion, or comments are noted, is becoming the common response to our queries. We are all fully aware what this term actually means, in that comments may be noted but are not considered.

“The clearest example of this change in culture is when three unions all gave opinion on a recruitment exercise that was making worrying changes. They all gave justified reasons as to why they did not support the changes, but rather than address our concerns, the response was noted.

“Therefore the joint trade unions side formally, as part of this dispute, are demanding the immediate cessation of this recruitment exercise until such times as full and inclusive consultation takes place. Failure to do so will lead to external proceeding being lodged. This is also not an isolated incident regarding recruitment, we are presently seeking legal opinion on a number of cases relating to its discrimination in recruitment practise.”

The letter to Mr Wilson continues: “You are also aware that elected councillors are continuing to attack our members via social media and other forums. I have had to write to you with a formal complaint on this matter just a few days ago.

“This is further failure of senior management to take our concerns seriously that has led to our decision of lack of confidence.

“As a result of the above and other examples we can give we must take action to protect our members terms and conditions as well as their welfare. We are now taking the following steps in order to so.

“We are registering a formal dispute with this council, in order for this not to escalate it into industrial action we are requesting that conciliation be carried out under the auspices of the LRA.

“Failure to agree with this request will lead to each of the unions balloting their members for action. This action will include the withdrawal of goodwill and a work to rule in line with our previous dispute.

“Given the seriousness of our issues and concerns, particularly those pertaining to our members’ welfare, it is also our intention to write out to all of them. This correspondence will be in the form of a stress survey regarding their workplace. We are confident when the results are analysed that management will become fully aware of how stretched and stressed our members actually are.

“JTUS look forward to your swift and considered response relating to this dispute, we hope that conciliation will see a formal resolution to these issues sooner rather than later.”

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