I have to admit to a feeling of deep unease over the announcement that 200 staff at the Vion ("Chuckies") chicken processing plant in Llangefni will start a five day strike from next Monday. The strike is in protest at Vion's offer of a 2% wage rise -- the Unite union argued that this is unacceptable considering that inflation is currently running at 3.1%.
The Llangefni plant is operated by the Dutch owned Vion Food Group, which produces and processes beef, lamb, pork bacon and chicken, as well as products such as sausages and cooked meats. The company employs 350 workers in its Llangefni chicken plant and a further 240 at the Welsh Country Foods abattoir in Gaerwen -- as such Vion is one of Anglesey's largest employers. Over the past year, Vion has already shed 140 jobs in the Llangefni plant when it moved to just one shift, and a further 200 jobs were lost at Welsh Country Foods in Gaerwen when the company shifted its retail packaging operation to Winsford in Cheshire.
The newspaper report in today's Holyhead & Anglesey Mail makes no reference to a vote having been held or the margin by which such a vote was won. As the plant employs 350 people, yet only 200 are striking, it suggests that the decision to strike is by no means unanimous amongst all workers at the plant.
Although I recognise that the pay rise is below inflation, one would hope that opting to strike would be very much the last resort -- especially as a five day strike seems to be extraordinarily prolonged in this day and age. This is particularly so when you consider that currently only 15% of private sector workers are unionised, and if we knock out those ex-public sector areas such as utilities, the railways and British Airways, the private sector rate falls to well below 10%. Also with Vion's profit margin running at just 0.7% of turnover according to their 2009 Annual Report (Dutch), it doesn't seem that Vion is currently making vast profits either.
My fear is that industrial action on this scale in a private business, possibly promoted by the Unite union not only for the merits of this particular case, could have damaging implications on Vion's future presence on Anglesey. This fear is compounded by the quote in the H&A Mail by a Vion spokesman, who said ominously, "the business will continue to focus on providing uninterrupted supply to its customers". How difficult would it be for Vion to shift production to another plant -- without a unionised workforce? What knock-on effects will a strike by the Llangefni plant have on the prospects of the Gaerwen plant? I hope that all of these questions have been considered soberly and carefully by both Unite and the workers involved before opting to strike.