RSPCA inspectors have voted to take industrial action short of a strike in a dispute over jobs.
The action, the first of its kind involving a leading fundraising charity was agreed last week as voted to disrupt plans to contract out the work of answering calls about distressed animals to the private sector.
Members of the trade union Amicus rejected an outright strike by seven votes, but gave a two-to-one majority for action short of a strike. The inspectors and other employees narrowly rejected strikes by 218 votes to 225 but backed action short of a strike by 292 to 155.
A union spokesman said they would decide within the next week whether this would take the form of an overtime ban, refusal to cover for absent colleagues, or the withdrawal of the goodwill on which charities depend. He stressed, however, that animal welfare would be protected at all times.
Management came into head-on collision with staff when the Societys Director General, former Liberal Democrat MP Jackie Ballard, proposed drastic cuts to eliminate a deficit and protect its dwindling financial reserves.
About 340 jobs would be lost in an attempt to balance the 2004 budget and make £8m savings over two years.
Amicus said the dispute focused on Ms Ballards plans to close the 10 regional centres which take calls about distressed animals, replacing them with a national call centre run by a private company, probably in London.
Bryn Pass, the union's RSPCA branch secretary, said: "We have a dedicated workforce here. In 180 years there has never been a strike. The fact nearly 50% voted to strike shows just how seriously they see the position."
Chris Ball, the national secretary, said: "This demonstrates the anger these plans have generated among Amicus members. We will now plan what action to take, but we are calling on the RSPCA to get back round the table for meaningful talks.
"I am calling on Jackie Ballard to stop this cruelty to RSPCA staff and revise this plan, which is accountant-driven and not in the best interests of the public or animal welfare."
Ms Ballard, in her usual robust manner, refused to accept that her plans may have been wrong and said the vote against strike action showed that the union had misjudged its members, "who wanted Amicus to negotiate on redundancy packages rather than take the approach it did.
"We now hope the union will come back and talk to us, and play a constructive role, particularly during the transition to the national call centre," she said. Members of Amicus at the animal charity rejected calls to walk out in protest at plans to axe more than 200 posts as part of a cost cutting programme. Fresh talks are now expected between the two sides to try to avoid the Unions threatened campaign of action.