Striking workers have pleaded with the engineering giant Caterpillar to strike a deal to fix their broken staff relations.
More than 160 employees at the multinational construction and mining equipment manufacturer have been on the picket line since April in an attempt to secure what they describe as a “fair pay settlement”.
The company has failed to respond to requests from trade union Unite to get back round the table and have responded by flying in workers from their plants in Britain to cover striking workers’ shifts.
The Sunday World understands workers are being paid more than £40 an hour, are given expense allowances to cover meals, and are being up in swanky five-star hotels such as the Grand Central and the Culloden Spa Resort.
Many staff at the company’s facilities at Springvale in Belfast and a the former FG Wilson factory in Larne currently earn £10.76 an hour.
Workers have mounted protests outside both hotels, heckling those who they regard as ‘scabs’ as they are ferried from the luxury accommodation to work.
Within 24 hours of Unite members balloting in favour of strike action in early April, the company emailed staff across the United Kingdom inviting them to take up enhanced terms to ensure the Belfast manufacturing operation stayed online.
The company told staff they believed industrial action should be avoided and they were moving to “contingency planning”.
“We are therefore asking for volunteers from our salaried and management teams across UK facilities to perform the roles of production employees at the Springvale facility,” they said.
“Caterpillar’s long-standing commitment to our customers and our business requires that we are prepared to continue operations at our facilities in the face of any business interruption, including industrial action.”
The Sunday World has spoken to a number of Caterpillar employees who have spent the last 11 weeks on the picket line.
“The pay is pitiful,” one worker told us, “in this industry, Caterpillar are known to pay among the worst wages and even then we get way less than our colleagues in England.
“This is a company that generates billions of pounds. There is a highly skilled workforce at Springvale turning out a high-quality product yet we have men on the workforce in their 50s going to their parents at the end of the month to borrow money.
“That’s how bad it is – it was bad before because £10.76 just isn’t enough, but with the cost of living crisis it is so much worse.”
The company offered a nine per cent increase spread over two years which also compelled workers to do 24 hours’ compulsory overtime per month.
Spread over two years and with inflation spiralling to a 40-year high, Unite said it equated to less than three per cent.
Not only are workers flown in from Britain every week and put up in luxury, but it is understood they have been enjoying the city’s best restaurants on the company plastic.
According to our source, when workers complained about the high prices in Belfast the company upped their hourly rate.
Temporary staff at the plant, who are not unionised, walked out in protest over wage levels but returned after the company offered than a one-off payment of £1,300 which they also paid out to the strike breakers.
“This is clearly not about money,” said source, “what they have spent in the last few months would have more than covered what we are looking for.”
And he accused the company of “union busting”.
“We are not looking for the world, just a fair deal. We believe they are sending a message to their other sites that they will not back down to unions. It’s clear they want to de-unionise the business.”
He said strikers faced a difficult choice. After 12 weeks on the picket line they are no longer protected by employment law and unless they return to work run the risk of redundancy. Eighty per cent of members voted to take industrial action but should they be forced to return he said tensions will be high.
“We want to go to work, we want to work for Caterpillar. All we want them to do is sit down with our union officials and talk.
“This is a highly skilled workforce which makes a great product, we are worth the money.”
With the 12-week protection period almost up, the striking worker told us there were fears the company will “do a P&O”, referencing the ferry company’s decision to unilaterally dismiss hundreds of workers to replace them with low-wage workers.
“Rather than pay fairly, Caterpillar is burning through huge sums of money in an attempt to defeat its own workforce,” said Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham.
“It beggars belief. Money that should be spent solving this dispute is instead being used to put up dozens of strike-breakers for weeks in luxury resort hotels.”
The Sunday World submitted questions to Caterpillar but at the time of going to print had not received a response.
Earlier in the week the company said they had negotiated “in good faith” to reach a fair settlement which included a nine per cent pay offer.
Last year, Caterpillar set aside more than £20 million in redundancy costs as it scales back operations in Larne.