Public Warned Over Council Strikes

PEOPLE across Wales were today being warned to brace themselves for widespread school closures and disruption affecting everything from social services to refuse collections as more than 50,000 council workers prepare to strike over pay.

The 22 local authorities will be reduced to providing “life-and-limb” emergency services to the most vulnerable members of the community on Wednesday and Thursday when carers, school cooks, caretakers, cleaners, teaching assistants, housing benefit staff and office workers take part in the biggest walk-out for almost two decades.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison – whose members voted to take strike action last month along with members of the Unite union – said today it could all be avoided if Welsh councils dipped into the £373m they have in the bank – of which he said £143m is unallocated – and increase the rejected 2.45% pay offer.

Unison and Unite balloted members on industrial action after local government employers said there was no more money in the pot to increase the offer which – with inflation running at more than 4% – unions say amounts to a real-terms pay cut for members, many of whom earn just over the minimum wage.

Unison, which said councils in England have £11bn in the bank, said the “secret” billions had built up largely because of efficiency savings achieved over the past few years.

“These billions of pounds in the bank, put there by the hard work of hundreds of thousands of low-paid Unison members, should be used by the employers to settle this potentially damaging dispute.

“The employers don’t have to go to the Government with a begging bowl, or put up council tax or cut jobs or services or any other dire consequences they are threatening.

“They should face up to the fact that the solution is staring them in the face.”

Some councils have stated they will not know the full impact of the industrial action until Wednesday morning when they find out exactly how many people turn up for work.

However, most councils are already advising residents who usually have their rubbish collected on a Wednesday or Thursday to hang on to it for a week or take it to their nearest tip.

In Pembrokeshire, people who have no option other than to put their rubbish out on the street are even being advised to cover it with blankets to stop it being scavenged by animals.

Primary, secondary and special schools in many areas will close for the two days and some will not return for the last day before the six-week summer holiday begins.

Unison spokesman for Wales, Dawn Bowden, told the Western Mail: “There will be significant disruption to almost every local authority service in Wales. It’s probably the biggest local government dispute since Nalgo members went on strike in 1989.”

Nalgo, the National and Local Government Officers’ Association, merged with other unions to form Unison in 1993.

“Nobody has gone into this wanting to take strike action, but they have come to a point where they don’t feel they have any choice because the pay offer is so poor,” said Ms Bowden.

Peter Allenson, Unite’s national secretary for the public sector, said: “Our members work very hard providing essential public services and they will not carry the can for inflation by taking pay cuts.

“They have voted for sustained action to defend their living standards, which should send a clear message to employers: get round the negotiating table as soon as possible and make an offer that will not result in a serious cut in living standards to our members.”

Paul Smith, chief executive of Swansea council, said: “Unfortunately, the nature of any industrial dispute is to cause a certain amount of disruption. We are doing what we can to minimise the disruption created during the strike.

“We will seek to provide residents with as much information as we can on any issues, which may affect them.

“This will be done via our website and the local media.

“Agreements have been reached between the unions and the council seeking to maintain critical services, such as care for vulnerable people.”

Paul Thomas, assistant chief executive in Carmarthenshire, said: “We would ask residents to please be patient and appreciate the difficulty that the authority is facing ahead of these strikes.”

The 48-hour walk-out will present a major headache for many parents, who will have to arrange childcare.

Teacher Shivaun McGuckin, 39, of Maesteg, mother to Conn, seven, and Tadhg, 11, said: “I do have sympathy for the strikers.

“They must feel strongly in order to take this action. But it presents a headache for many parents in terms of childcare.

“Both my husband and I are teachers and while our schools are closed to pupils, we have to go to work so, because the boys’ school is shut, they will have to come to work with one of us.

“For other parents who are in jobs that don’t allow them to do that, they will have to take time off work or leave their children with a relative.”