Summer of discontent? Cost-of-living crisis prompts surge in pay disputes

Caterpillar claimed it offered workers a 9 per cent pay increase as strike action commenced on Monday. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

NORTHERN Ireland is bracing itself for a summer of discontent as unions flex their muscles and threaten a series of industrial actions across a number of sectors.

It comes after strike action begun yesterday at construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar in west Belfast.

Members of the Unite union begun the action amid claims an "insufficient" pay offer had been tied to the threat of compulsory overtime - despite the company offering an above-inflation 9 per cent rise.

Meanwhile workers at the optical instruments manufacturer Andor Technology site in Springvale, Belfast are poised to ballot for strike action in a bid to improve their pay in order to meet rising living costs.

And bus drivers at Translink have already confirmed they plan to strike for a week beginning April 25.

Latest official figures show that average pay across the UK economy increased at an annual rate of 4.8 per cent from November 2021 to January 2022.

But with inflation hitting 5.5 per cent in January and then by a 30-year high of 6.2 per cent in February, wages are simply not keeping up with soaring costs (the real cost of living currently stands at 8.2 per cent and is expected to rise further), prompting unions to engage with employers.

The surprise election last summer of Sharon Graham to head the UK's biggest trade union Unite, where she succeeded Len McCluskey, has seen a renewed focus on industrial relations in Northern Ireland.

At the time of her election, she said: "Unite is an incredible force for good in the UK and Ireland but I am fully aware of the huge challenges our members face in the workplace. As general secretary, I will put all the power of our union into defending their jobs, improving their pay and protecting their rights."

Indeed in recent weeks, Ms Graham has been directly quoted in press releases from the regional Unite office, underlining that she is taking a bigger focus on Northern Ireland than any of her predecessors.

On the action at Caterpillar, she said: “This is another case of naked boardroom greed. Caterpillar is sitting on billions and could well afford a pay deal which protects our members and their families at a time of surging inflation.

“Caterpillar must understand that these workers are resolute and have the full support of their union as they prepare to take determined action to win a fair wage deal.”

In response, a spokesman for Caterpillar told the Irish News yesterday: "We negotiated in good faith with Unite to reach a fair and balanced final agreement which would include a 9 per cent wage increase effective from April 1.

"The company believes industrial action should be avoided, but is committed to maintaining operations at its facilities throughout the duration of the action."

Union officials at Translink are demanding a 6 per cent pay rise for bus workers across the region, but claim bosses have refused to budge from their offer of 3 per cent.

But a Translink spokesman said the company had made a pay offer of 3 per cent "plus an enhanced package of conditions that included a 7 per cent increase in weekend and overtime rates along with two extra days holiday".

Meanwhile workers at Andor are poised to ballot for strike action in a bid to improve their pay in order to meet rising living costs.

A recent survey of the workforce revealed that nine-in-ten are finding it harder to make ends this year, even though the employer enjoyed pre-tax profits of £11.1 million in 2021.

Unite says the threat of a ballot comes after bosses ignored workers' overwhelming rejection of a two per cent pay offer for 2021 and instead pressed on with a two-year pay settlement by offering a below-inflation 6 percent increase for 2022.

Don Leeson, chief executive of the Labour Relations Agency, said: “We are experiencing an upsurge in demand for its collective conciliation service, which exists to resolve disputes between employers and employees, represented by their trade union.

“In recent months, these disputes have been pay-related as employees seek better pay to offset rising prices. We would encourage the parties in any dispute to use our services, which are impartial and promote productive dialogue to reach a settlement that benefits all concerned and avoid costly industrial action.”

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