Sandwell Leisure Trust staff strike in 'fire and rehire row'

Strikes were taking place across seven leisure centres operated by Sandwell Leisure Trust on Tuesday after eleventh-hour negotiations between the trust and the GMB union broke down.

Striking staff at Wednesbury Leisure Centre
Striking staff at Wednesbury Leisure Centre

More than 84 per cent of eligible GMB members voted in favour of industrial action across the sites, with the union saying that bosses at the leisure centre refused to discuss a pay claim put forward by GMB, Unison and Unite members at the end of 2021. The GMB said it believed almost 90 per cent of local members were out on the picket lines today.

About 100 members of the three unions were striking at seven sites across the borough. The strike action was taking place from 6am-10am and 1pm-3m at the following sites: Haden Hill Leisure Centre, Langley Swimming Centre, Portway Lifestyle Centre, Smethwick Swimming Centre, Tipton Sports Academy, Tipton Leisure Centre and Wednesbury Leisure Centre.

One striker, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "We're striking over pay terms and conditions. It's an ongoing thing about being fired and re-hired, [it happened] about roughly 12 months ago.

"We're just striking to be treated fairly and for fair pay. Everything is going up and they're just trying to dumb down our terms and conditions and our pay, and myself included and the rest of the staff feel like we're drowning in the current living crisis; everything's going up apart from our wages.

"Morale is quite low at the moment. We're not getting much communication from the employer, SLT, and the council are blaming Sandwell [SLT], Sandwell [SLT] are blaming the council. There's a lot of talk but no real action with our current situation. So morale is quite low amongst staff of all tiers really."

They added: "Just after lockdown was released, managers and the board decided they were going to attack the terms and conditions of staff and most staff felt bullied into signing the new contract. They were fired and re-hired and told basically they didn't have a job effectively.

"And there was a lot of correspondence between the employees and staff members and the general consensus was they felt bullied. No-one wants to dumb down their terms and conditions and they felt bullied into signing it to keep their job at a time when staff felt most vulnerable after not being able to socialise with each other.

"It seemed like management were picking you off whilst you weren't able to talk to your colleagues effectively and they just hit people when times were really tough and people's mental health was an issue and it was the choice time to do it - they chose that time.

"We'd like the trust to effectively give us our terms and conditions back."

A spokesperson for Unison said: "Unison members in the West Midlands are taking strike action today in support of a 10 per cent pay claim or a return to national local government NJC pay.

"Joined by members of GMB and Unite, this new dispute follows the fire and rehire of all 280 staff at Sandwell Leisure Trust to remove them from national pay terms in March 2021.

"In February this year, Sandwell Metropolitan borough council announced that it was terminating the contract with the trust to run nine leisure centres across Sandwell, and looking at how to run the centres in the future, after a series of strikes by staff over their being fired and rehired.

"Today’s one-day strike will take place after Unison members voted by 95.7 per cent for industrial action in a recent ballot."

Unison Sandwell branch secretary Tony Barnsley added: “The price of food, fuel and energy keep rising and inflation is forecast to go above 10 per cent this year.

“This is a reasonable claim that we urge the board of Sandwell Leisure Trust to settle. If they had not fired and rehired their staff in the first place, this industrial action would not be necessary.”

Mr Barnsley added that Unison members were “determined to fight for better pay".

"All three unions striking together means that more leisure centres will be shut or adversely affected on the day," he said.

“We want Sandwell Leisure Trust to pay up, rather than sitting on millions in reserves.”

A spokesperson for Sandwell Leisure Trust said: “SLT has been consulting with all trade unions throughout and has met with them, as requested, to discuss and receive their representations that will be considered at the next board meeting later this month.

"SLT is committed to working collaboratively and has asked if all trade unions would suspend their industrial action in order to allow the trust board to consider these representations at the earliest opportunity.”

A Sandwell Council spokesperson said: “The services the trust provide are extremely important for our residents.

“As a council we will be working hard to ensure that any disruption is kept to an absolute minimum and we urge the trust to work with its employees and the trade unions to resolve the ongoing dispute.”

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