Bet Catering Services is preparing legal action over press coverage of a dispute with school meals staff at its contract in Stockport, Greater Manchester.
The move follows reports which the company says contain defamatory remarks. In a statement last week BET said it was preparing legal action against "a number of individuals" whose remarks had been deemed libellous.
The company has come under fire since local government union Unison said it would ballot school meals staff on whether to take industrial action over a cut in working hours introduced at the start of this term by BET.
The union is sending out ballot papers on Monday to catering assistants whose hours have been reduced by an average of 15%. If members vote in favour of industrial action, a 10-week series of one-day strikes will follow.
The two sides disagree over whether transfer of undertakings regulations (TUPE) apply to staff hours. Stockport Unison branch secretary Marjorie McDermott claimed BET had broken regulations, saying the company had imposed the reduction in hours from the start of this term.
Mrs McDermott said working hours had traditionally been determined using a complex formula based on the number of meals served in primary schools and income from meals in secondary schools. "We're arguing that TUPE applies to that formula, while BET is claiming it does not," she said.
She added that BET had informed the union of the reduction two weeks before the end of last term. "They imposed it without the agreement of the union, and we are now in a confrontation situation," she said.
But, in a statement to Caterer, BET said the company had acted fairly, consulting unions, staff and head teachers about the proposals. It said the consultation had included taking union representatives to visit staff and clients at another BET contract to find out how productivity changes had been implemented there.
The company defended the reduction in staff hours, which it said had been looked at and discussed with kitchen heads on a school-by-school basis.
"Our operational and support service personnel are the most experienced managers in the UK - from either the private or the public sector - within this arena," the company said. "As a result, we are exercising the right, based on this experience, to manage our business accordingly."
Belinda Coles, BET's marketing director, said the strikes were not a foregone conclusion. "A ballot does not mean there will be industrial action. We believe the pride of the catering staff and management is strong enough to make them vote against action," she said.
BET took over the 23,000-meal-a-day contract in June last year from Stockport's catering direct service organisation. In its statement it said it did not believe industrial action of any nature would be in the best interests of pupils or parents. "Our actions will support our stance," it added.
- Tayside Contracts, the region's DSO, has had its £27m school meals contract renewed for a further four years on the basis that cost-cutting measures will be introduced. Bernard Peters, the council's client services manager, said the measures would not include any loss of staff.