Road gritter drivers working across Carmarthenshire are refusing to carry out any overtime in the run up to Christmas because of an ongoing row over money.
Workers at Carmarthenshire Council’s environmental services department are taking part in strike action over the next three days, meaning they will not work in the evenings.
Three unions - GMB, Unison and Unite - all voted in favour of action being taken and are blaming the council for its refusal to budge on extra payments given to staff who carry out a “dangerous job” that could end up costing them money from their own pocket.
The issue centres around what’s known as retainer payments - a fee that is paid upfront to secure the services of a professional.
It’s been revealed that negotiations have been ongoing between the unions and Carmarthenshire Council bosses for more than a year. According to the unions, these talks came to a halt when the council made a “final offer” of £90 per week as a retainer fee, which was declined. This was later increased to £105 per week but was again turned down.
While the strike action - which is starting on Wednesday - is due to last for the three evenings, there is a warning that matters could escalate after Christmas unless the council and the unions come to an agreement soon, with Mark Evans, Unison’s Carmarthenshire branch secretary, admitting earlier this month that “this could get very nasty, or it could get sorted out very quickly”.
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In a letter sent on Tuesday to the council’s executive member for environment, Hazel Evans, Mr Evans wrote: “The purpose of this letter is to contact you directly to ensure that you are made aware of the trade unions' perspective of how this dispute arose and how it can be ended.
"The dispute with Carmarthenshire Council is in regard to payments on offer to our members who drive the winter gritting lorries. This is a hard and dangerous job and an accident that could be no fault of the driver could result in their private insurance payments skyrocketing.
“As a result of the council’s intransigence all three unions balloted our members to take strike action and action short of strike action. All three unions passed the voting threshold and all three voted overwhelmingly to take strike action and action short of strike action.
“Since the council became aware of the strength of feeling of our members, management made another offer - a slight increase in the retainer, but for that they wanted the industrial action to be called off and for the trade unions to agree to conciliation with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).
"We had previously offered the employer before they made their ‘final’ offer to meet with ACAS but they refused. We have no problem meeting with ACAS but these talks are unlikely to be successful unless the employer offers a substantial increase in the retainer payments.
“We were not prepared to cancel the industrial action and a ban on overtime will apply from Wednesday morning. This is obviously bad publicity for the council (that the council has brought on itself), who we will continue to highlight are prepared to pay an arm and a leg for contractors to do gritting but won’t pay our members a decent retainer.
“We wish to make the council aware that if the council does not substantially increase its offer on retainer payments then the unions will consider escalating the action after Christmas.
“We call on Carmarthenshire County Council to value its employees not just in words but in deeds - pay our members a decent retainer.”
Carmarthenshire Council said it was disappointed about the continued dispute, but wanted to reassure road users that they would be unaffected by the planned action.
It confirmed that contingency measures would be implemented to ensure that all gritting routes would be treated as normal should weather conditions create a risk of ice, frost or snow.
“We are disappointed that we remain in dispute, despite having made a further increased offer that is fair and proportionate with other Welsh local authorities," said Ruth Mullen, director of environment at Carmarthenshire Council.
“This offer, rejected by the unions, is a payment to be on a weekly rota and is over and above what is already on the table. This is payable regardless of whether staff are called to work overtime or not, and on top of their hourly rate - which is paid at the top of their grade - if they are required to work out of hours.
“Our conversations with the trade unions continue, with conciliation being put in place to ensure these conversations come to a satisfactory conclusion as quickly as possible.
“Whilst we do not wish to be in this position, we are keen to ensure that no resources are wasted and therefore the planning for this industrial action will be used to strengthen our contingency planning going forward.”
There remains the potential for further action after Christmas and into the New Year, as it’s understood that the unions have asked for a retainer fee of £180 per week - double the council’s original offer, and it's thought it would take a “significant increase” on the last offer of £105 for the unions to consider it along with their members.
Union members will man the picket lines at three depots on Wednesday evening, in Trostre, Glanamman, and the Johnstown area of Carmarthen.