Aberdeen City Council has performed a surprise U-turn to bring to an end a bitter and long-running pay dispute with thousands of staff.
Councillors agreed unanimously to back down yesterday – and give 6,555 employees the wage rises they had been owed since April.
The surprise move will cost the local authority £2.9million – and led to warnings last night that jobs could be axed to claw the money back.
Talks will be held between the council and trade unions about a potential shake-up of the incremental pay rise system which could lead to it being linked directly to attendance and performance from next year.
The move – seen as the first step to introducing performance-related pay – emerged on the day the local authority’s workforce was branded the sickest in Britain.
Aberdeen City Council’s average absence rate of more than three weeks a year is worse than any other council’s in the UK.
Chief executive Sue Bruce said the problem was costing council tax payers up to £5million a year, but added that new polices had led to an improvement in the figures over the last seven months.
She also revealed that more than a dozen workers had been dismissed last year because of their attendance records – and said a project would be launched which would mean staff would have to speak immediately to an occupational health nurse after being off sick.
The deal to end the nine-month row about workers’ pay rises was hailed as a “good day” for both staff and management by the council’s political leadership last night, and was also welcomed by trade union representatives.
Unison branch secretary Karen Davidson said: “We are relieved that council staff will now get the agreed rate of pay for their job and we are glad that this distracting issue is behind us.
“Withholding the increment was a breach of our contract and it affected hundreds of low-paid workers who were entitled to an increment for the first time this year.
“We have established a vital principle here – that employers cannot use the current tough financial climate as an excuse to break contracts of employment.”
Janet Adams, organiser of the GMB union, said: “We are delighted that the council are recognising people’s contractual rights and are paying them the money.
“It has certainly been a costly exercise for the council to take it this far.”
The pay rises were written into the contracts of council workers as part of last year’s landmark equal pay deal, although yesterday’s decisions could lead to a renegotiation of previously agreed terms and conditions.
The council said the new deal was agreed after both sides took account of the UK Government’s comprehensive spending review last month which left the public sector facing a grim future.
The deal was agreed just two weeks before a potentially-damaging employment tribunal test case, which the trade unions were convinced their members would win.
Almost 2,000 workers lodged breach of contract claims against the council after they did not receive the increment payments they were due on April 1.
More than half of the claims also alleged sex discrimination because three-quarters of the workers affected were women.
The sex discrimination claims from members of the Unite union personally named 10 Liberal Democrat and SNP councillors who voted to try to approve, retrospectively, the withdrawal of the payments in June.
But the decision at June’s meeting was never ratified, because opposition councillors referred the issue to another meeting two weeks later for a final ruling.
At the second meeting, the Lib Dem-SNP administration backed down and called for a “time-out” to restart the talks with union officials.
Arbitration service Acas was called in last month to help broker the deal.
Council finance convener Kevin Stewart said: “I am pleased that Acas helped the council and the unions come to a compromise.
“I am glad that the staff will be paid the full increment and that the unions are now prepared to discuss attendance and performance as part of the payment of incremental rises, and that they have agreed to look at terms and conditions.
“This is a good day for our staff and for the council, but the downside is we will have to look at staff numbers.”
Opposition Labour group spokesman Willie Young criticised the council’s ruling administration.
“They have completely capitulated,” he said.
“They have made the right decision but they should have made it months ago.
“They have upset so many staff that it’s no wonder we have low morale and sickness rates are so high.”
Aberdeen Conservative group leader Councillor Alan Donnelly said: “It is because of the comprehensive spending review that the unions have seen a bit of sense, through Acas, that local government has to cut its employment costs.”