by Dale Street
STRIKERS at the Sunvic Controls factory in Uddingston near Glasgow, which manufactures controls for domestic and commercial central heating systems, returned to work last Monday (4 June) after ten weeks.
The 42 employees, mostly women, and all of them members of Amicus and the TGWU (which have now merged into Unite), had been out on official strike since 21 March in a dispute over flexible working and lay-off pay.
In the 14 months of negotiations which had preceded the strike, management had insisted on new employment terms which would allow them to enforce short-time working and lay-offs, including the right to impose lay-offs of up to twelve weeks whilst paying the workers just eight days pay.
Many strikers feared that it was not just their terms and conditions of employment which were at stake in this dispute, but also their jobs themselves.
Sunvic Controls is intending to sell off its site in Uddingston for private housing development. In fact, in the last week of May Sunvic lodged an application with South Lanarkshire Council to obtain planning permission to change the site’s use from industrial to residential.
The new site to which Sunvic will move its operations is likely to require a smaller workforce.
Imposing redundancies would be an expensive option: between them, the strikers have got over a thousand years of employment with Sunvic, and redundancy pay is calculated on the basis of age and length of service.
A cheaper way for Sunvic to cut its workforce would be to provoke a strike (by refusing to make any compromise in prolonged negotiations), sit out the strike for twelve weeks (while pretending to do everything possible to resolve it), and then (legally) sack the workers after the twelfth week.
Throughout the ten weeks of the strike Sunvic management had taken a consistently hard line. As the most recent edition of the Amicus Scottish e-bulletin put it: “Sunvic management has gone to extremes to break the strike and the spirit of the workers. It is a throwback to the very worst examples of Thatcher-era industrial relations.”
Just before the strike began staff were escorted off the premises before the end of
their shift. Scabs were taxied in an attempt to break the strike. Cameras were installed to film pickets at the factory gates. And management called in the police in response to spurious allegations of picket line intimidation.
But management’s heavy-handed tactics failed to daunt the strikers’ morale.
Picketing of the factory was organised throughout working hours, Monday to Friday. Union branches in the West of Scotland and further afield donated to the strike fund. A rally organised by the strikers on a Friday in early May attracted around a hundred supporters. And a demonstration in support of the strikers was due to have been held last Saturday (2 June).
In the middle of last week, however, the strikers voted to call off the strike.
Unite officials have tried to put a brave face on the end to the dispute, claiming that talks with ACAS had resulted in a “significant improvement” by the company of its original proposals, and that any issue relating to short-term lay-offs would be dealt with through a “robust and meaningful process of consultation” involving employees, union representatives and management.
In fact, it seems that if the company has changed its proposals at all, then it has done so only marginally, and that what forced the strikers to call off the dispute was the risk that they could have been sacked in another two weeks. (By engaging in talks with ACAS, Sunvic could claim that it had taken reasonable steps to end the dispute.)
This was the first all-out strike by Unite members since the creation of Unite. In fact, the strike was underway before Unite existed.
The Amicus-TGWU merger which created Unite was sold to members on the basis that it would create a far more powerful union, with a budget of £15 millions just for organising: “a progressive, organising, fighting-back industrial giant”, according to joint-General-Secretary Tony Woodley, able to “take on any company where its members wanted help.”
The result of the Sunvic strike, if it is typical, does not augur well for the future.