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Council backs down from confrontation with unions

10 Nov 2023 5 minute read
Unison Cymru

Martin Shipton

A Welsh local authority has decided not to go ahead after all with a plan that would have reduced the ability of staff to get support from their unions.

Unison, which represents 660 members of staff at Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, has been campaigning against a decision to cut employees’ access to their union representatives.

It would have meant council workers would have been able to access union support for just two days a week.

Unison held a protest outside the civic centre in Merthyr on Wednesday November 8, ahead of a full council meeting at which the issue was discussed.

Following an amendment put forward by the council’s opposition Labour group, councillors voted to allow staff five days access to their union reps every week until March 31 2024.


UNISON Cymru regional organiser Carmen Bezzina said: “This is great news for council workers across the authority. Councillors have clearly listened to the concerns of unions and the workers they represent.

“Council employees provide such a valuable service and must be able to access union support whenever a problem arises.”

The union’s Cwm Taf local government branch secretary Peter Crews said: “Council staff and their unions are grateful for the support of the Labour group and its amendment that helped overturn the decision. It was vital that councillors stood up to defend the rights of staff who play such a key role in the local community.

“Thankfully problems at work only happen rarely, but when they do it is vital people know they can rely on the support of their union rep.”

Over the past six months, Unison reps at Merthyr Council have dealt with a variety of workplace issues including bullying and sexual harassment.

Budget constraints

Before the full council meeting, the authority’s Independent leader Cllr Geraint Thomas issued a statement which said: “In February 2023, due to the financial budget constraints, and to support the organisation through the Voluntary Redundancy and Voluntary Early Retirement process, the council passed a resolution to put in place trades unions’ facility time in order to comply with the Trade Unions and Labour Relations Act 1992. Council agreed five days facility time to both Unison and GMB for a fixed six-month period.

“At the end of this fixed term contract and anticipating there may still be a need for the provision full-time, officers made a recommendation to the cabinet to continue with the agreed five days until the end of the financial year, in order to support the council through the next budget setting period.

“The cabinet reviewed the recommendations and concluded that two days per week per union facility time was adequate. This was as a result of the council’s current financial position and with a view to the organisation having to find significant savings to balance the budget.

“To approve the financial growth expenditure for the two days per week of facility time, a report will have to be taken to the next full council meeting on November 8 for approval.

“Working in partnership with the relevant trades unions remains a priority for the council and we will continue to do this to ensure that we provide our staff with efficient and effective employee relation support.”

Welsh Government

Had the reduction in union “facility time” gone ahead, it would have been seen as a serious blow to the Welsh Government’s social partnership agenda.

Earlier this year the Welsh Government enshrined union relations in law with a Social Partnership Act intended to place trade unions at the heart of decision making over public services.

Unison played a key role in supporting the creation of the Welsh Government’s Social Partnership Act which became law in May 2023. In June 2023 Deputy Minister for Social Partnership Hannah Blythyn issued a written statement that said: “Part 1 of the Act establishes the Social Partnership Council for Wales (SPC) to be chaired by the First Minister and comprising representatives of employers and workers from the public, private and third sectors.

“Nominations will be invited for worker and employer representatives and appointments made in the months following commencement. The draft procedures for the SPC will also be published in the autumn. It is my intention that the first meeting of the SPC should be held before the end of January 2024.

“Part 2 of the Act places social partnership duties on those public bodies subject to the well-being duty in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and on Welsh Ministers. Part 2 also replaces the reference to ‘decent work’ in the A Prosperous Wales well-being goal with a reference to ‘fair work’. The provisions relating to public bodies will be commenced on April 1 2024. Public bodies covered by the legislation will need to seek consensus or compromise with recognised trade unions or other representatives of staff when developing their well-being objectives or making decisions of a strategic nature about the steps they intend to take to deliver the objectives. For their part, Welsh Ministers will be required to consult with the SPC when making decisions of a strategic nature in relation to the delivery of their own well-being objectives.”

The council’s U-turn therefore takes current arrangements up to the time when relevant clauses of the Social Partnership Act come into force, obliging local authorities to negotiate a satisfactory agreement with the unions.

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