Labour presses for peace at car plant

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Senior Labour Party figures are expected to put pressure on union leaders to sue for peace at the Peugeot works in Coventry, after the workforce voted overwhelmingly for an indefinite strike.

Labour is concerned that an all-out stoppage at the car manufacturer so near the general election would be used as political ammunition by the Conservatives. The vote at Peugeot comes amid tensions elsewhere in the motor industry which are also causing the party concern.

National union leaders meet today to decide their strategy at the French- owned company. Unions are expected to opt for a "breathing space" for negotiations, but they will couple the olive branch with a warning of indefinite industrial action to come in the absence of the deal.

In a turnout of about two- thirds, Peugeot workers voted with a majority of 84 per cent to go on strike at protest a management attempts to change working hours and its alleged refusal to negotiate over pay. There were 1,720 employees belonging to the Transport & General Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union who voted to strike - with 363 against - while 1,848 backed action short of a stoppage and 243 voting for no action.

Union sources said yesterday that industrial relations at Peugeot were the worst in the motor industry. Unions last year protested over the management's plan to introduce French national holidays in place of the traditional British breaks. That is still a bone of contention.

Tony Woodley, chief motor industry negotiator at the T&G, said the ballot result reflected "mounting frustration" with management. "The industrial relations climate has been soured by the company's unilateral attempt to chance working arrangements and its refusal to talk seriously over pay.

"It is now time the company sat down and addressed our grievances. Negotiation is better than confrontation, but it takes two to negotiate," he said.

A Peugeot spokesman said the vote was disappointing, adding: "We hope that sensible reflection on the part of all employees will prevent serious and potentially far-reaching and damaging consequences."

Labour expressed private concern recently over the threat of industrial action at Ford in protest at redundancies at Halewood on Merseyside. The party is now also concerned about unrest elsewhere in the industry. The T&G is currently testing the mood among the workforce at Ford-Iveco in Slough, which is earmarked for closure.Union officials said that industrial action was unlikely at the works, which is owned by Fiat and Ford, but workers were being balloted on whether they wanted to fight the shutdown or accept redundancy.

And at Rover, unions are engaged in highly-sensitive talks over proposals to introduce sweeping changes to working practices.

A Peugeot spokesman said the vote was disappointing: "We hope that sensible reflection on the part of all employees will prevent serious and potentially far-reaching and damaging consequences."