COUNCIL leaders in Southampton have warned unions they have not won public backing for looming crippling strikes over pay.

Members of the Unison and Unite unions voted for strike action after the council issued 90-day dismissal notices to about 4,300 members of staff to force them to sign contracts for worse pay and conditions.

A total of 495 union members who took part in the secret ballots voted in favour of strike action (55 per cent) and 725 backed industrial action short of a strike (80 per cent).

Union leaders have threatened the “most serious industrial action the city has ever seen”.

But council said more than 2,700 staff facing the pay cuts, of between two and 5.5 per cent to help plug a £25m budget hole, have now said they will accept them. More than 200 workers and 40 senior managers are also being axed.

Council leader Royston Smith insisted they were the “only credible alternative”

to the loss of 400 more jobs over two years and essential services.

He said: “It is encouraging that well over half of Southampton City Council staff have now agreed to the new terms and conditions.

“I very much hope that unions decide not to pursue strike action, which will only cause problems and disruption for our customers, particularly on the basis that only a small minority of council staff have voted to strike.

“I do not think the general public would support this strike action and the loss of their services based on these low numbers.”

But Unison branch secretary Mike Tucker said it was more significant that half of council workers had not signed up to new contracts.

He admitted they would ultimately have to accept them or lose their jobs but could be in line for compensation of up to £10m under a legal claim brought by the unions that the council failed to consult properly.

He said turnout in the Unison ballot, at 39 per cent of nearly 1,800 members, was higher than the elections which put the councillors in power.

He added: “I don’t think any of the public like to have services disrupted but all the indications are they understand why we are doing this.”

Unite’s convenor at the City Council Mark Wood, whose union balloted 692 members, insisted they had received a strong mandate for industrial action.

He said: “The turnout of 42 per cent is very high for ballots of this nature and reflects the anger and frustration that our members feel.”