COUNCIL chiefs will meet union leaders for talks at the mediation service ACAS in a bid to break a series of potentially crippling strikes in Southampton, the Daily Echo learned last night.

The development was revealed after more than 100 refuse collectors started a week-long walkout yesterday.

The strike, which involves 108 workers, is the first in a rolling programme of targeted action by council workers, expected to involve street cleaners, parking wardens and gravediggers.

The industrial action, which could be the worst the city has ever seen, is over pay cuts.

However, last night city council leader Royston Smith confirmed to the Daily Echo that he had instructed officers to meet union leaders at ACAS. He said: “If ACAS think they can find some chink of light in this we’ll be at the table, but the unions have to come to these negotiations with some solutions.”

Around 4,300 council workers have been threatened with dismissal, if they do not sign new contracts cutting their pay by up to 5.5 per cent.

Unite regional officer, Ian Woodland, said: “The council are looking at saving millions of pounds over four years so, even if we were to agree to this arrangement, I think there would be more cuts to come next year.

“We are fighting against a political decision that would break down and erode our members’ terms and conditions. We know this strike is going to affect people and the council know it’s going to affect people, so I hope that they will come back to the unions and say ‘let’s try and resolve this.’”

Under the proposals, staff earning more than £17,500 will see their pay cut by two per cent, with the percentage increasing to as much as 5.5 per cent, depending on workers’ basic salary. Van loaders currently earn between £14,000 and £17,800, with drivers on a basic salary of up to £21,000.

Uncollected wheelie bins lined the streets of Southampton yesterday on the first day of the strike, but many residents spoke out in support of the walkout.

Howard Watson, of Wilton Road, Shirley, said: “I fully support their actions. I understand the council have to save money but they are cutting services too far and too quickly.”

Cllr Smith denied the cuts were ideologically driven and accused the unions of trying to personalise the dispute which he said was “damaging the services to customers that pay their wages”.

He added that the public appeared to back the council’s pay cuts once they understood why they were being made – to save 400 more jobs being axed over the next two years.

He said: “If the unions were genuinely interested in representing their members’ interests then they should understand we are trying to protect jobs and services.

“While I fully understand any reduction in wages will be difficult for our staff, this is the only way to protect our residents from losing their libraries, leisure centres and Sure Start centres.

“I am determined not to allow that to happen.

Southampton deserves better.”