Strikes threat as construction workers reject pay offer

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The Independent Online
The recovery in the construction industry could be under threat from nation-wide strikes after union negotiators yesterday rejected a 45 per cent increase in basic pay over four years.

It is understood that prestige projects in London and the South-east, where union membership is at its highest, could be the main targets for disruption on any hit-list. They are likely to be the millennium site at Greenwich, the new Tate Gallery at Bankside Power Station in London, the pounds 100m refurbishment of the Royal Opera House and the construction of the Jubilee Underground line. The bypass at Newbury could also be the subject of disruption.

If the unrest spreads into the general building trade the acute shortage of housing could be made considerably worse.

Allan Black, national officer for the construction industry at the GMB general union, said talks had broken down and there was no immediate prospect of further negotiations. He said building workers would be extremely anxious when they realised there would be no wage increase by the end of this month - the due settlement date.

"We are sleepwalking into industrial action," he said yesterday at his union's annual conference in Brighton.

While national pay negotiations had little impact on real wage rates in previous years because many workers were self-employed, tighter implementation of tax laws has led to thousands of craftsmen moving to employed status. Union negotiators insist on inflation-breaching rises to make up for the fact that more of their members are being forced to pay tax.

Union leaders are also keen to exploit the scarcity of skilled labour which has seen the going rates for steel fixers in London rise to pounds 600 for a five-day week and the wages of bricklayers increased to pounds 400.

Mr Black estimated only 10 per cent of the 800,000 workers in the construction industry were union members but he predicted that even non-unionised personnel would walk out.

In negotiations employers amended their offer from a four-year package to a three-year deal said to be worth 32 per cent but union negotiators rejected it.

The final proposal, turned down by employees' representatives, was said to be worth 5 per cent from the end of this month, 14 per cent from June next year and 10 per cent in the following year, taking hourly pay rates from pounds 4.58 for basic craft operatives to pounds 6.05.

Rival union Ucatt argued that the main bone of contention was not so much the pay offer, but the insistence of the Construction Confederation, the employers' body, on flexibility of working hours. The confederation wants to negotiate a "derogation" from a European directive which stipulates that employees should not work more than 48 hours a week averaged over four months. Employers wanted working time to be calculated over 12 months.

Malcolm Fordy, chairman of the employers' side, said the proposals constituted a "wide-ranging, positive and constructive" response to union aspirations. It would encourage training and reward the attainment of skills, thus improving the status of the industry and its public image.

"To our very great regret the trade union side rejected our offer. I must make it clear that no further concessions will be made by the employers," he said.

Mr Fordy confirmed that no further meetings had been arranged and that present pay rates would remain in force.