Hundreds of workers join wildcat action over sackings

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A mass rally in support of 650 sacked oil workers will be held today after a wave of wildcat strikes swept through the UK energy industry.

Three-thousand workers walked out of power stations and other sensitive facilities in protest at the treatment of contractors employed on behalf of the French oil giant Total at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire where pickets yesterday set fire to dismissal notices.

Energy supplies remained unaffected by the latest spate of unofficial actions to hit the industry which centred on support and construction roles at up to 19 locations across England and Wales. But the proximity to some of the UK's most economically sensitive industrial plants means there remain fears that those working in operational roles could still be drawn in should the disruption escalate.

The Government last night urged all parties to talk but Total said it would not sit down with unions until the Lindsey contractors had called off their unoffical action.

As hundreds of strikers gathered early yesterday morning in the car park on the banks of the Humber, the dispute spread rapidly. The neighbouring ConocoPhillips refinery was affected while more than 1,000 workers downed tools at the Ensus biofuel site in Wilton, Teesside. Four-hundred staff walked out at two LNG plants in west Wales including the vital terminal facility at South Hook and 200 more took action at the Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan.

There were also defiant shows of support at Scottish & Southern Energy's Fiddlers Ferry power station in Cheshire and RWE npower's Didcot A plant in Oxfordshire. Disruption was also felt by E.ON and EDF Energy at facilities in Nottinghamshire and at Drax in North Yorkshire where 200 contractors refused to clock on at Britain's largest coal-fired power station.

Union sources said all those taking unofficial action faced the prospect of losing their jobs but were determined to put the maximum pressure on the Government and Total to bring about an end to the dispute.

With just two months remaining on the contract for many of the scaffolders and other trades brought in to build a hydro-desulphurisation unit next to the refinery in Lincolnshire, union negotiators said they were forced into taking unofficial action because negotiating the labyrinth of anti-strike legislation would require six weeks in which to hold an official ballot. "By then it will be too late for these men," said one source.

Tom Hardacre, the national officer of Unite whose members make up the majority of the 900 currently on strike, described the sacking of the Lindsey workers as "outrageous" and "one of the most aggressive acts" he had ever witnessed as a trade unionist. "Last week we were attempting to broker a deal to get a resolution to the unofficial dispute but Total have allowed the dispute to escalate without any strategy to resolve the problems," he added.

The dispute flared 11 days ago after it emerged that one of Total's main contractors was to make 51 workers redundant just days after another contractor had hired 61 new staff at the site. Union officials believe it was an attempt to "weed out" militant shop stewards and members who had made the plant the focus of national attention during the unofficial action over overseas contractors earlier in the year.

Last Thursday night the sub-contractors affected by the walk-outs issued redundancy notices to all those who had failed to report for work and gave them until 5pm yesterday to reapply for their jobs. Many only learnt they had been sacked after watching the news on television.

Total said it could not confirm how many had reapplied for their jobs but in a statement said it was "encouraged by the initial feedback" from contractors so far. It said it was hopeful that construction work could resume on the project within the next few weeks.

Gordon Brown's spokesman said all parties needed to play their part in resolving the impasse. "This is a matter between the management and workers, but we would hope it can be resolved as quickly as possible," he said. "It continues to be our view that the parties do need to talk – ideally through Acas."