UNIONS last night launched a £12m legal battle against Southampton City Council.

Employment tribunal claims by thousands of staff could land the city with a bill equivalent to more than £100 on each household's council tax.

Union chiefs, who say the council failed to properly consult on its plan to dis¬miss workers and re-hire them on worse contracts, have vowed to fight on to restore controversial pay cuts imposed on council staff yesterday unless a deal can be reached.

All but a handful of council workers signed up to the pay cuts to save their jobs by last night's “Armageddon Day” deadline.

The council last night said it would robustly defend the claims and was “confident” that it had carried out all the required consultation over the cuts to terms and conditions.

Up to 2,400 unions members are continuing industrial action over the pay cuts of between two and 5.5 per cent for around two-thirds of staff, along with a two-year freeze on annual rises, and mileage rate cuts from 54p to 45p. More than 600 council workers are going on strike this week.

Strikes at a glance

• 60 street cleaners on strike until July 18
• 40 parking wardens on strike until July 18
• 120 refuse collectors on strike until July 18
• 20 Itchen Bridge staff on strike until July 18
• 80 librarians on strike until July 18
• 20 children’s workers on strike until July 18
• 13 port health workers on strike until July 18
• 15 vehicle mechanics on strike until July 18
• 230 building maintenance workers on strike on July 13
• Hundreds of council workers will march through the city to a rally at the council on Wednesday, July 13

The council said around 60 or 70 contracts were outstanding last night from the 4,615 letters it sent to staff but said some were due to workers sick, on holiday or not on shift and it expected oth¬ers were in the post.

Those that didn't sign but continue to turn up for work will be paid the new rates under implied contracts, the council said.

The Tory-run council says the savings, worth £6.7m, will protect 400 jobs as it faces a £76m budget black hole over the next four years - £10m more than forecast earlier this year.

Unison regional organiser Andy Straker said the dispute was being led by members who last week agreed that without a negotiated settlement they would continue industrial action for the restoration of pay and conditions.

As revealed by the Daily Echo, the unions have a £20m war chest to bankroll the action, and have warned that the strikes could go on for weeks to come.

Talks through mediation service ACAS collapsed in stalemate weeks ago. A final offer by the council, as part of a ten-point plan, to lift half the workforce - those earning under £22,000, including bin men - out of the pay cuts, a concession worth £300,000, was rejected as not going far enough.

Mr Straker said: “We're interested in a negotiated settlement not a meeting about how to implement a ten-point plan.”

He added unions would be asking members to sign up to a massive unfair dismissal claim in coming weeks.

“We think they've stepped out¬side of the law. It's about showing this council has acted unlawfully and we intend to prove it,” he said.

An employment tribunal claim has already been submitted asking for 90 days pay for union workers over a failure by the council to consult about its dismissal plan - worth up to £5,000 each.

Council leader Royston Smith admitted: “We've got nothing to cover it at all. They've already put residents through enough misery and stress. They now going to sue the council tax payers for £12m.”

He said if the unions were successful and were awarded their claim in full it could cost 400 jobs to pay for it.

Cllr Smith added he was “disappointed” the strikes were continuing but was hopeful of more talks soon.

“If [the unions] called it off I would still be willing to negotiate within the financial envelope we have,” he said.

He also denied union claims that his administration planned to sack one quarter of the workforce after a leaked council budget report set out 1,224 redundancies over the next three years to fill the budget gap. It added the caveat “clearly the savings will not be found from 100 per cent post reductions”.

Striking council workers were joined for the first time yesterday by port health workers and vehicle mechanics.

Bin men walked out again after spending four days last week beginning to catch up on the mountains of festering rubbish that has piled up across the city.

The council said it was now using nine trucks hired from contractors to try to keep pace with the collection chaos and was prioritising collections of household waste both in wheelie bins and by the side of bins. But waste chiefs said it would take two to three weeks to clear, even with bin men at work.

The crippling strike action, which is now in its eighth week, has sparked health and safety fears following reports of an increase in vermin and pest problems, and dangerous fires when rubbish has been torched by arsonists.

On Wednesday, workers will march through the city to stage a protest outside a meeting of the full council.