Abattoir strikes threaten supplies

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The Independent Online
THE SUPPLY of meat to shops faces severe disruption after slaughterhouse inspectors voted yesterday to strike, sparking what will be the first national dispute between public servants and the Government.

Union leaders said the stoppages would have an immediate impact on supplies and attacked the Government for interfering in pay negotiations.

While the industrial action, due to start within the next fortnight, will involve only 1,000 inspectors it will be difficult to process meat for human consumption without them. They voted for a series of one, two and three-day strikes. The inspectors examine beef, lamb, pork and poultry carcasses before they are released from abattoirs and sold to supermarkets and butchers.

The conflict is a key test of ministers' attitudes towards unions and comes when relations between union leaders and Tony Blair seemed to be improving.

Senior officials at the public service union Unison complained that the Treasury and the Cabinet Office intervened in talks at the eleventh hour last year to insist that there should be no salary increase unless there was a productivity agreement. Despite a government commitment to "social partnership", the union has not been invited to talks over staffing.

In the result announced yesterday - and predicted in The Independent - some 61 per cent of Unison members employed by the Meat Hygiene Service voted for action in a turnout of 57 per cent - relatively high for such a ballot.

Keith Sonnet, assistant general secretary of the union, called for fresh talks with management, but warned that industrial action would begin before 2 February unless there was a satisfactory settlement.

Inspectors will be called out on a 24-hour strike initially, but the stoppages will then be extended to last two and three days.

The 12-month-old dispute is over a 3.65 per cent increase on basic wages imposed on the inspectors by management after negotiations broke down last year. The union is seeking an increase of at least 4.7 per cent to match rises elsewhere in the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food.

Employees' representatives initially claimed a rise of 5 per cent or pounds 650 a year, whichever was greater.

The officials are paid a maximum of pounds 15,000 basic salary, but can earn up to pounds 25,000 if they work 60 hours a week.

Johnston McNeill, chief executive of the Meat Hygiene Service, has written to local authorities urging them to deploy environmental health officers to abattoirs in the event of walkouts. However, most of the council employees are Unison members and are being urged not to break the strikes.

Mr McNeill said the union's claims of meat shortages were scaremongering as retailers would simply buy meat from abroad.

He added: "Unison want the rewards of performance- related pay that take other agreements to 4.7 per cent without the responsibility that goes with it. We will not be held to ransom in this way. It is simply not acceptable."