Thousands set to strike in three separate disputes


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The Independent Online

Thousands of workers will go on strike this week in three separate disputes over jobs and pensions affecting consumer goods giant Unilever, tax offices and a leading gallery.

A rolling programme of strike action will hit Unilever sites across the country from Wednesday as unions step up their protest against the company's plans to close its final salary pension scheme.

Lightning strikes will hit tax offices today over union fears that work is being privatised, while workers at the National Gallery in London will walk out on Thursday in a row over staff cuts.

Thousands of Unilever staff will go on strike, starting at 6.59am on Wednesday, with action continuing until midnight on January 28.

Unite, the GMB and Usdaw said the stoppages will hit production of leading food and cleaning products including Marmite, Flora, Hellmann's mayonnaise, PG Tips, Pot Noodle, Lynx, Persil and Dove.

Unite's national officer Jennie Formby said: “We have repeatedly called upon this company to talk to us about a sensible solution to this dispute. It is deeply regrettable that Unilever refuses to even sit with us at Acas.

“It confirms they are not interested in a common solution and it gives the workforce no other option but to withdraw their labour.

“Last December, these workers took the first ever strike action in Unilever's UK history. Instead of seeing that for the profound expression of frustration that is was, Unilever spitefully cancelled the workers' Christmas celebrations.

“Now, across the country people are realising how the company treats its workforce, a company that is the 18th most powerful on the stock exchange, the third biggest consumer products company on the planet, and where the chief executive's pay, 285 times that of his average employee, jumps by nearly 50% in one year.

“A second round of strikes will soon begin right across the business, sending a clear message to management that this workforce will not be bullied or cowed.

“Unilever shareholders must start asking searching questions about whether this dispute is doing the business' reputation or operations any good and instruct management to get back round the table and solve this fairly.”

Unilever said it believed the provision of final salary pensions was a “broken model” which was no longer appropriate for the company.

A spokesman criticised the strikes and said it was Unilever's responsibility to protect its long-term sustainability and competitiveness.

New pension arrangements being implemented from July were “exceptionally competitive” and had been enhanced following consultations with employees, said the firm.

The strike will hit several sites including Port Sunlight, Warrington, Trafford Park, Norwich, Leeds and Gloucester.

Thousands of tax officers will hold lightning walkouts today in protest at plans to bring in private companies to do their work, the Public and Commercial Services union said.

Union members who work in call centres and inquiry offices across the UK will stage a series of short strikes and are planning more for January 31 - the deadline for self-assessment returns.

The action is in opposition to the appointment of two private companies to run call handling trials in HMRC tax credit contact centres in Lillyhall in Cumbria and Bathgate in Scotland.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “When jobs in HMRC and the civil service are being cut in their tens of thousands, it is entirely wrong to start handing contracts to private companies.

“Instead of privatising ever more of our public services, the Government should be investing in its own staff to ensure they are equipped and trained to provide the essential services they are proud to deliver.”

Meanwhile, PCS members at the National Gallery will walk out between 1pm and 3pm on Thursday and between 4pm and 6pm on January 28, with further action threatened in February if management do not review staffing levels.

Mr Serwotka said: “As well as hosting high profile exhibitions like Da Vinci, the gallery is home to some incredibly valuable works of art, not just in monetary terms but in their contribution to our culture and society.

“But instead of investing in the arts, and the people who look after them, the government has imposed massive spending cuts on our museums and galleries to pay for an economic crisis caused by bankers, and we are now seeing the impact of this on the National Gallery and elsewhere.”

An HMRC spokeswoman said: “The project is not about outsourcing or replacing HMRC jobs. It is ultimately about finding ways to improve the service we provide to our customers.”