Unions at odds over ballot

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VICIOUS infighting among the country's biggest unions will result this week in one announcing a strike ballot of 225,000 local government workers and another declaring publicly that there is no chance of a Yes vote.

The GMB general union is expected to hold a ballot of gravediggers, cleaners and catering staff in protest at a 2.9 per cent pay offer, while the Transport and General Workers' Union believes that its rival is guilty of "absurd posturing".

The row burst into the open yesterday when Jack Dromey, national official at the TGWU, said: "I've never believed in balloting members knowing they will vote No. It will only further damage our credibility."

Mick Graham, Mr Dromey's opposite number at the GMB, said his members had rejected the proposal overwhelmingly. "It is not for me to override my members' wishes. They made it clear they wanted to be balloted on industrial action. I would like to think other unions would join with us." The unions are due to meet on 24 April for what promises to be a heated discussion on strategy.

Mr Dromey's union believes the GMB is trying to wrest the initiative from Unison, the public service union, which is by far and away the biggest with around 1.2 million members at local councils. Unison members have voted to accept the 2.9 per cent, while blue-collar workers belonging to the GMB and TGWU have voted against it.

At the heart of the clash is a dispute over a move towards a single bargaining agreement covering blue- and white-collar workers and the likelihood that Unison would then dominate.

Sources at the TGWU believe the GMB scuppered a possible deal in February, which would have given the lowest- paid staff rises of up to 4.8 per cent, because it involved a merger between blue- and white-collar grades.

Ostensibly all three unions are committed to a "single-status" structure. Mr Graham insisted yesterday that his union saw unified employment conditions between office and manual workers as a key issue and that the 4.8 per cent proposal had unacceptable "strings".

The GMB ballot is to be held among low-paid workers, 200,000 of whom earn just pounds 3.71 an hour. The proposed increase would give them less than 11p more an hour before tax - around pounds 4 a week for full-timers.

The three unions claimed a "substantial" flat-rate increase for blue- collar workers and a minimum rate of pounds 4.15 an hour. Without the present offer, hourly rates of pay vary from pounds 3.71 to pounds 4.37.