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Industrial action brings Carmarthenshire County Council back to negotiating table

TWO days of recent industrial action taken by Unison, GMB and Unite members regarding the winter gritting dispute with Carmarthenshire County Council were successful in more ways than one. All depots had picket lines with Nantglas depot picket line in Cross Hands being particularly well attended and supported. Pickets and supporters welcomed the visit and solidarity of Rob James opposition Labour Group leader of Carmarthenshire County who came to support our action.

We have been forced to take this action due to the intransigence of the Plaid led council who have flouted the collective winter gritting agreement that they signed two years ago after industrial action then. Our members particularly those with families are angry that they have on many occasions been left waiting all night for a call to be told whether they will be gritting or not only not to receive a call. Union members have said this is not about the money but about having enough time for rest periods and not having to stay awake all night waiting to answer the phone. These members are not paid standby payments and yet they are expected to be available all night. This is in our opinion a clear flouting of the collective winter gritting agreement.

Our action was a clear show of strength that forced the council back to the negotiating table by offering to reinstate talks via ACAS. We would like to thank all members and supporters including Swansea Trades Council who supported our action and who attended the picket lines thus far. The council struggled to provide an inferior and unsafe winter gritting service during our industrial action that was maintained by inspectors, supervisors, and a smattering of contractors.

Since the above industrial action took place the trade unions received a request via ACAS for a meeting with the council on the Monday the 17th of Jan (this has now changed to the 18th of Jan). This offer of talks (if the council are prepared to change their position) shows that two days of action has more effect on the council than two years of negotiations. We welcome that that council are now prepared to talk but we have asked for reassurances that they are serious about finding a positive solution for our members i.e., adhering to the winter gritting collective agreement and we called for the Cabinet member for Environmental Services to be present. We were asked whether we were prepared to postpone further industrial action by ACAS pending talks. Considering industrial action forced the council to offer to meet again all three unions were not prepared to postpone all the industrial action that was planned. But as a goodwill gesture we said we were prepared to postpone action for the Monday the 17th of January only, action will continue to take place from the 18th to the 21st of January if the council is not serious about ending the dispute. The overtime ban and picket lines will still be taking place on the above dates to ensure we keep the pressure up on the council to change its stance. It is our expectation that the council will be bring positive proposals to the meeting on the 18th of January i.e., that they are from now on are going to adhere to the winter gritting collective agreement. If this proves not be the case, then the dispute will continue with the action already planned taking place.

Carmarthenshire County Council said that it would like to reassure the public that contingency arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of the travelling public as winter maintenance staff prepare to take industrial action.

Trade unions have asked their members not to carry out gritting on roads out-of-hours on January 5 and 6. Two further periods of industrial action are also planned between January 17 and 21, and January 24 to 28.

The council rejects comments made by the GMB in relation to the agreement that is in place in relation to winter maintenance duties, and has also put forward a revised offer.

The agreement, which was put in place in 2020, recognises the valuable contribution council employees make and provided them with a remuneration package which is one of the highest in Wales. 

The package provides employees with a retainer payment for committing to the rota throughout the winter period to cover gritter driving.

In a typical winter the council will schedule 310 shifts across 158 days. Employees are stood down on 201 shifts (65%) out of the 310, instructed to grit on 83 shifts (27%) and where there is uncertainty in a forecast drivers are retained on 26 shifts (8%). Employees are paid the retainer for all 310 shifts regardless of whether they need to work or not work.

The council has always adhered to the terms and conditions of the agreement, and in order to avoid industrial action and to secure the service, the council has put forward a revised offer, which unfortunately the union has chosen not to present to its members but have decided to ballot and implement industrial action.

Cllr Hazel Evans, Cabinet Member for Environment, said: “The council recognises and values the contribution of our employees in helping to ensure the road network is treated during the winter months to provide a safe road network for the public, businesses and the emergency services.

“The council made a formal agreement with the trade unions in 2020 to cover winter maintenance duties. The agreement recognised the valuable contribution our employees make and provided them with a remuneration package which is one of the highest in Wales.

“The council has adhered to the terms and conditions of the negotiated agreement and has always worked to support our employees to provide a safe road network for our communities, businesses and emergency services, as far as reasonably practicable.  

“An increased offer was put to the trade unions to help secure the winter maintenance service. The offer is considered very reasonable and at the level of what the council can afford. Unfortunately, trade union colleagues have chosen not to present this offer to their members but have decided to ballot and implement a period of industrial action at this difficult time.

“These are extremely challenging times as COVID continues impact on communities and employee resource.

“The offer remains available to our employees and on the negotiating table with our trade unions. We hope that in the wider interest of our communities, our employees will give the offer due consideration.

“In the interim the council will implement its contingency plan to undertake gritting on a reduced resilient network.”

Carmarthenshire County Council’s winter maintenance service ensures, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along the highway is not endangered by snow or ice. To fulfil this duty, the council normally treats a primary network of 17 gritting routes along our main highways ahead of freezing weather, including 13 gritting routes along county roads (23% of network) and four trunk road routes. The resilient network includes the four trunk road routes. 

Residents are being reminded to be prepared and to drive responsibly during the winter months, and in particular to be mindful of changing weather conditions.

For further information on our winter maintenance service and advice on how to stay safe please visit the council website carmarthenshire.gov.wales