Strike threat hotting up at Sellafield

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The company faces losses running into millions of pounds if the workforce decides to strike.

The Sellafield Ltd employees will be asked to back their unions’ call for full-scale industrial action.

Yesterday Sellafield’s boss Barry Snelson made a personal plea for the workers not to strike and to consider carefully the damage it could do at a sensitive time.

“I am disappointed we have moved to this stage,” he told The Whitehaven News exclusively.

Three unions – GMB, Prospect and Unite – have sent a joint letter to the workforce asking them to decide whether to take:

Industrial action short of a strike; or strike action.

GMB convenor Peter Kane said: “We are seeking a yes-yes vote. This will give us option to take whatever action we feel would have the most effect.”

The threat of Sellafield being hit by its first strikes for five years has escalated since last Friday’s breakdown of pay talks.

Mass meetings of all union members will be held first to explain the facts followed by postal ballots conducted in secret.

But Mr Kane said: “We will make sure the site is covered safely in the event of any strikes.”

The ballot results will not be known until mid- to late-August by which time Sellafield will know who will take over the site’s future running.

The winners of the NDA’s competition to decide which company gets the lucrative PBO – parent body organisation – contract will be known soon.

“It is not embarrassing for us and I don’t think it will be embarrassing to the winning bidder or the NDA,” said Peter Kane. “I don’t think they would want to get involved. All our negotiations have been with the management of Sellafield Ltd. They’ve made it clear it’s between us and them, it was their issue.”

The NDA told The Whitehaven News it had “no legal remit” to intervene to try and avert potentially damaging strike action.

Head of Sellafield Mr Snelson said: “We are steadily improving our reputation for safety at Sellafield and are endeavouring to demonstrate the same abilities in efficiency and productivity.

“This year’s offer was intended to inspire just that. It has been configured to pay broadly the same as last year if we deliver the improvements our customers and stakeholders need.

“I hope that during the time until the ballot my Sellafield colleagues will reflect, and agree, that building a long-term future is better than an immediate percentage point gain.

“We have an opportunity to play a key role in the nuclear renaissance currently being enjoyed in the UK but we must continue to work hard to make Sellafield Ltd more attractive to investment and inspire confidence in the industry.”

An NDA spokesman said: “Sellafield management are properly seeking to link salary increases to productivity and efficiency savings; the NDA supports them in this. We also recognise that all our sites could carry out further work if more funds were available but this has no impact on the principle of funding salary rises through efficiencies.”

Only a few months ago the NDA gave Sellafield Ltd a record £1.3 billion to operate the site over the next year, and pay awards have to come out of that.

The last industrial action badly hit the site in November 2003. The dispute was over a £2,000-a-year pay gap between shift workers and white collar staff. Three “disruptive” one day stoppages over three weeks cost BNFL well over £1 million each day through plant closures and lost production.

Brian Watson, who was head of site at the time, told The Whitehaven News yesterday: “Nobody, management or unions, wanted the strikes and both sides showed a lot of integrity through it all. Safety was paramount and it was not prejudiced by the action.

“In the end we went up to London and got an ACAS settlement which closed the pay gap.”

The new threat comes after the workforce balloted to reject a two per cent rise on basic pay and the chance to earn another two per cent through site savings.

Prospect (staff) union spokesman Mike Graham said: “We are not prepared to sell our members short.”

He claimed: “British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield’s holding company, faces government pressure to hold down pay in advance of the NDA’s awarding the clean-up contract to a new PBO. Our members should not be expected to tolerate an award that’s below the market rate and relies unduly on efficiency bonuses because of behind-the-scenes interference from the Treasury and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.”

Former Sellafield craft union leader Alan Westnedge, now Unite regional organiser, said: “This is the worst offer I have had from any company for a long time. United is not prepared to recommend insulting offers to our members. In real terms it is a pay cut.”

Sellafield Ltd said the offer was realistic one for employees who enjoyed generous terms and conditions. Last year’s pay award was 4.85 per cent and the bonus scheme recently paid each member of staff more than £1,200.

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