Balfour Beatty will go to the UK High Court on Tuesday in an attempt to prevent strike action in a long-running dispute over pay that threatens to disrupt work at power stations, oil refineries and construction sites.
The Unite union, representing electrical workers, received the agreement of 67 per cent of those voting at the engineering services division to go ahead with the walkout, which could affect the Sellafield nuclear power plant and the Crossrail project. But the workers have agreed not to carry out the plan until the court decision on Tuesday.
The dispute is the latest in a series of industrial disputes being referred to the High Court. The number of employers using the threat of legal action and court injunctions to prevent industrial action has risen sharply since BA successfully invoked the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations act to block a strike by cabin crew members in 2009.
The dispute centres on attempts by Balfour Beatty Engineering Services and six other companies to introduce new contracts. According to the union, employees could face pay cuts of up to 30 per cent if the agreement is brought into effect, and reduced holiday entitlement and overtime. It also fears that the deal will lead to fully qualified tradesmen being replaced by less-skilled workers.
Contractors – represented by BBES and the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association – argue that a standardised rate of pay will make it easier for employers to compete in a difficult market.
They also say that some workers will receive higher pay as a result of the deal, with plumbers – currently earning £15.45 an hour outside London – brought into line with the highest grade of electricians at £16.16 per hour.
Bernard McAulay, Unite national officer, said: “This high Yes vote for strike action indicates the resentment felt by our members. They are enraged over the use of bully-boy tactics to try and usher in an era of deskilling across the sector as well as massive pay cuts.
“Balfour Beatty needs to recognise it has lost the support of its employees. They need to rejoin the industry-wide agreements which have served the industry so well.”
He added that members “know that Balfour Beatty is a vastly profitable company” and it had no need to affect workers’ livelihoods to increase profits.
The ballot was the second held by the union after a previous vote was derailed in the High Court. The electricians have held a series of demonstrations throughout the country after contractors sent letters to workers last summer asking them to agree to new terms and conditions or face dismissal.
BBES said it was “disappointed” with the result of the ballot. “BBES is working alongside the HVCA and six other leading UK contractors to modernise our industry and become more competitive,” it said.
“A number of fundamental deficiencies in the Unite ballot have again been identified from the inclusion of non-BBES staff, non-receipt of ballot papers and the mis-categorisation of sites and our employees. BBES has made application to the High Court for an injunction restraining Unite from acting on the outcome of this ballot on the grounds of these fundamental deficiencies and we await the outcome of our application.”