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26 January 2018

Cammell Lairds strikers demand improved pay and conditions

Hugh Caffrey

Hundreds of Birkenhead-based shipbuilding workers employed at Cammell Lairds and organised in the GMB and Unite unions are in dispute over pay.

On the first day of strike action, 26 January, Socialist Party members visited the picket line and we heard some horror stories about this employer which appears determined to recreate the notorious conditions on the Mersey docks from a century ago.

On a site where the employer says 1,200 people work: showers removed and not replaced, no canteen, no hot water in the toilets, 15 of 16 toilets in one block without any seats, holes in shed roofs big enough for not just rain but also hail and snow to come through onto workers, a roof leaking water onto high voltage cables 'fixed' by putting a tarpaulin over the cables - these and more examples of rotten conditions were told to us by strikers.

Workers want minor improvements to pay which would improve terms and conditions such as pensions, sick pay and death-in-service pay.

After seven or eight months of 'negotiation' with no acceptable offer being made, this week some token 'changes' were offered at the start, clearly to undermine strike action.

This has had no effect on today's action, and workers understand why the employer seems so insistent on a five-year deal and is contradicting the unions at every stage.

Chief executive officer John Syvret apparently sees himself as a rags-to-riches success story and a master of public relations. That's not how his statements in the local media have come across. In fact he looked surprised when his visit to the picket line failed to make a positive impression - pulling up in his Range Rover, he went straight to the front of the queue at the butty van and offered to buy everyone teas and coffees.

The union had already done that, so his offer was politely declined. As I was going, he'd returned, seemingly to repeat the exercise! Bizarre behaviour from the former barrow-boy, who as someone said, "could at least have offered to buy us all a bacon butty!"

Cammell Lairds isn't short of a quid or two. A Unite member told me that according to Companies House records, in round figures there was 20 million in the bank in 2016, when 4.5 million in dividends were paid out to a handful of shareholders, most of whom are company directors. In that year the company made 1.8 million profit, though it had made up to 8 million profit in previous years.

The cost of things like a marginally less-stingy sick pay policy pales by comparison. It seems there's an underlying agenda of undermining the unions, of putting profits before people, and pushing towards the casualisation of the workforce.

Strike action continues on Monday 29th and will resume in February if the dispute isn't resolved. The wider trade union and labour movement should visit the pickets which are all day from 7am, just off New Chester Road roundabout in Birkenhead, opposite the Rock retail park (use the postcode CH41 9BP to navigate).

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 26 January 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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