Labour politicians in Birmingham turned the clock back to the dark days of 1970s industrial relations last night after they refused to cross union picket lines and boycotted a meeting of the full city council.
The 41-strong Labour group missed the chance to debate the controversial pay and grading review, which prompted a one-day strike by council staff, because they wanted to show solidarity with the workforce demands for a "fair day's pay for a fair day's work".
The decision was bitterly criticised by members of the council's ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition who accused Labour of abdicating their responsibilities and letting down their constituents.
Mike Whitby, the council leader, said opposition Labour leader Sir Albert Bore was guilty of "shedding crocodile tears" on behalf of the workforce and issuing promises that could never be kept.
Sir Albert told a rally of union members in Victoria Square that a Labour-led council would have given low-paid women workers six years back-pay under the Single Status deal to outlaw wage inequalities - a pledge that would cost the council an additional £80 million on top of £160 million already committed.
Labour councillors were content to make a petty political point when they could have been addressing the concerns of staff in the council chamber, said deputy council leader Coun Tilsley (Lib Dem Sheldon).
Two Labour members - deputy leader Ian Ward and Lord Mayor-elect Chauhdry Rashid - attended the first 15 minutes of the meeting, having obtained "special dispensation" to cross picket lines from the Transport and General Workers' Union.
They were there to vote on Coun Rashid's nomination as Lord Mayor, and then left the meeting. Sir Albert (Lab Ladywood) defended the decision to boycott the meeting, adding: "It is the Tory-led council, not Labour councillors, that is guilty of turning the clock back to the 1970s by holding a gun to the unions' head."
Coalition leaders used Labour's absence to make a number of claims about yesterday's stoppage: * Cabinet human resources member Alan Rudge said union leaders in Birmingham wanted to settle the dispute on five occasions last week but were over-ruled each time by union officials in London who wanted a strike for "political" reasons
* The unions were guilty of scaremongering on a huge scale and telling "lies" about the impact of the pay and grading review in an effort to drum up support for the strike
* Under the new grading system, accepted in a ballot by workers, dustcart drivers will be paid £38,480 a year by 2010 - substantially increasing their pension entitlement.
The impact of yesterday's stoppage appeared to be patchy. Only 134 out of 450 Birmingham schools closed, along with all libraries, and neighbourhood offices. No bins were collected or streets sweeped.
However, council offices remained open along with the markets and most leisure centres.
Representatives from the unions involved - Unite, T&G, Amicus, Unison, GMB and UCATT - were making it clear that a campaign of industrial action would continue until the council withdrew wage cuts from more than 4,500 employees who stand to lose out under the new system.
In a joint statement the unions said: "We have been forced into this regrettable action by Birmingham City Council. Despite months of protracted negotiations they have failed to comply with the principles of an earlier equal pay agreement designed top pay a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, irrespective of gender.
"Instead they have tried to impose a new pay and grading structure for their own ends.
"Many of our members are facing massive wage cuts and the very real prospect of losing their homes."