Strike action at Balcas, Enniskillen ends as workforce votes overwhelmingly to accept vastly improved pay offer

Balcas celebration

Two year pay deal is worth more than one thousand pounds a worker in first year with guaranteed above-inflation pay increase in year two

First successful private-sector industrial action in Fermanagh in more than a decade has electrified workers in county and galvanised demand for fair pay

April 12th: Gareth Scott, Unite Regional Officer responsible for his union’s membership at Balcas Timber, congratulated the workforce and their shop stewards on a powerful two-day strike action which led to a substantially improved pay offer being made by management at the Fermanagh-based employer. In a ballot over the two shifts on site, a significantly improved pay offer was overwhelmingly accepted bringing the industrial action to an end.

“Balcas employees, whether working in the wood mills or handling timber work exceptionally hard in what can be a difficult and potentially dangerous job. That level of commitment was simply not reflected in the basic pay rate they received with some workers receiving significantly less than seven pounds an hour – a situation only sustained by the bonus system which ensured they didn’t fall below the current legal low pay limit of £8.21. Management had sought to make the workers carry the burden for the uplift in the statutory minimum wage by significant reductions to the system of bonus payments.

“The forty-eight hour strike action taken by the workers was unprecedented in Balcas and the first private-sector strike in Fermanagh in very much more than a decade. It came on the back of a significant growth in Unite membership at the site and was a powerful demonstration of workers’ power. The strike action caught the imagination of people across the county and its success will instil confidence that workers can win if they organise.

“Those on the pickets received a huge outpouring of support from the local community and other workers, in particular those from other Unite-organised workplaces. In a display of inspiring solidarity, the majority of independent contractors who haul timber to the site refused to deliver during the strike as they refused to cross the picket lines.

“In the LRA mediated talks that took place concurrently with the strike action, management brought forward a substantially improved pay offer; however, the talks almost stalled when they appeared intent to punish those on the pickets by insisting that days lost through strike action would count against good attendance payments but eventually this threat was removed from the table. In ballots across both shifts the workforce then voted overwhelmingly to accept the improved pay offer.

“The two-year pay deal is worth at least one thousand pounds extra to most workers in year one and that’s before you consider the impact of the basic pay uplift to overtime. In Year two, the deal commits management to an above inflation pay increase, on top of any further uplift to the minimum wage, as well as to address any remaining pay anomalies. Unite is satisfied that this deal offers a solid platform for the workers and management to move forward positively and with confidence. Balcas is a company which can be confident of its future if pay is sufficient to retain the skills and commitment upon which that success will be built.

“The heroic spirit and unity of this strike action, involving workers from many different nationalities and across all traditions, has electrified workers across Fermanagh and the southwest of Northern Ireland generally. Unite is undeniably at the head of growing movement for fair pay, decent terms & conditions and improved health & safety across Fermanagh and other rural areas of Northern Ireland. We call on any workers not already in a union to draw the necessary conclusions from the Balcas dispute: by joining a fightback union like Unite, getting organised, and being determined to secure fair pay – real improvement is possible.

“We invite workers to join us. Unite’s objective is nothing less than to overhaul poverty pay across the board, end bad management practices everywhere and secure a better future for working-class people”, Mr Scott concluded.

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