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1 March 2019, 18:52 | Updated: 1 March 2019, 18:53
Birmingham City Council has lost a bid for a temporary High Court injunction to stop strike action by two trade unions in a long-running dispute with refuse collectors.
The council applied to the High Court in London on Thursday for an urgent injunction to try to stop Unite and Unison taking what it claimed was "unlawful industrial action" pending a full trial.
The local authority said it is currently spending around £350,000 a week on external contractors and would need to spend up to another £200,000 a week on further crews due to a planned escalation in strike action.
But the unions argued the application was "entirely without merit" and said the industrial action was protected by trade union laws.
Giving judgment on Friday, Mr Justice Freedman dismissed the council's application, ruling that it was "more likely than not" that Unite and Unison will succeed at trial in proving that the strike action was lawful.
In a statement after the ruling, Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said that Unite "remains committed to entering into further negotiations to end the dispute once and for all", adding: "In that spirit we have called off the strike scheduled for next Monday to allow talks to proceed."
The unions and Birmingham City Council have been locked in a bitter dispute over claims that members of another union, GMB, who did not take part in previous strikes in 2017 had been given extra payments by the council.
The council said the payments were made to settle employment claims brought by GMB members for failing to consult them over redundancy proposals, but Unite claims the payments were a "reward" for not taking industrial action.
At a hearing on Thursday, the council's barrister Andrew Burns QC said that "360,000 households have been affected by the industrial action" and that "missed collections have increased and there are reports of infestations of rats and foxes in residential areas".
He said this "presents a hazard to the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Birmingham".
Mr Burns told the court: "Since the end of December 2018, Birmingham City Council has spent up to £346,000 per week on external contractors to clear uncollected waste.
"The escalation of action means that Birmingham City Council will shortly need to seek authority to engage further crews of external contractors at an additional cost of around £199,000 per week."
Oliver Segal QC, representing the unions, said the dispute was about "righting a historical wrong" and ensuring that the union's members achieved "retrospective parity with GMB members who received the payments".
He also rejected the council's contention that it had a "proper legal justification" for making the payments to GMB members.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Freedman said: "It is natural that a union will make demands for its own members, but it does not follow in this case that that is to say that the unions in this case wished to procure the equality of payments only for their own respective members."
The judge added: "The fact that Unite and Unison have combined shows that it is not the case that Unite or Unison wish to have the additional payments for their own union members. They wish the payments to be made to each of the employees who have not received the same."
Mr Beckett said in a statement: "Yesterday was a dark day for Birmingham City Council. A council that has the privilege of calling itself Labour tried to use Tory anti-union laws to block lawful strike action. There are many who should hang their heads in shame.
"The harsh truth is that rather than listening to the democratic voice of their own workers, and putting right the wrong of 'secret payments' made after the 2017 dispute, the council has been more interested in trying to secure an injunction."
He added: "The council needs to listen to their own workforce, stop blaming others for the situation they have created, do the right thing, end the disparity and so end the dispute."
Councillor Brett O'Reilly, cabinet member for clean streets, waste and recycling, said: "We didn't want to end up in court and we have done everything we could to avoid going to court.
"We have made a consistent, significant and reasonable offer and we had every reason to believe that the Acas talks, which continued until the last minute, had been productive.
"We repeated our offer throughout the talks and we're very sad that the offer was not accepted.
"We were then left with just two choices: Rubbish piling up on the streets of Birmingham until 2020 or seeking resolution through the courts.
"Now we would urge the trades unions to return to talks to avoid further damaging action.
"The very reasonable offer that was previously rejected is still on the table, but is conditional on all current litigation and industrial disputes being brought to an end, including the current ballot to finish on March 8."