Strike action, involving refusal to work overtime and Unite members working strictly according to contract, will start after midnight tonight, while further stoppages will halt production for 24 hours from 10pm on Wednesday.
Staff are protesting at a below RPI yearly pay offer of 3.3% plus £200 (which Heinz says equates to a 4% offer in real terms), which also includes a possible rise of up to three per cent in 2011 and improvements to the healthcare scheme.
Jennie Formby, national officer for food and drink, Unite, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that around 900 staff (90% of eligible voters) supported strike action via postal ballots - while 95% supported measures short of stoppages - with action confirmed at a mass meeting of around 500 on Saturday.
"The mood of the meeting was angry and determined. Heinz has left our members with no choice but to stand firm and fight for a fair pay deal. It is treating a loyal workforce disgracefully," said Formby. "Our members helped it to make vast profits and the company is still refusing to table an improved pay offer that reflects their hard work."
Heinz: staff get ‘excellent pay’
Describing the ballot outcome as "very disappointing", a Heinz spokesman said that the firm's latest offer was "well above" the average UK earnings increase of 1.7%. "As a package it stands out as one of the best in the food and drink sector, the area and the country,” he said.
"We are maintaining an open communication channel with Unite via the site union representatives with a view to resolving the dispute, but the industrial action planned will leave many totally perplexed."
Neverthless, the spokesman said he anticipated supplies of Heinz varieties such as Beanz and Soups would be unaffected by the action "since we have already taken steps to manage stock levels to ensure consumers are not disappointed".
But Formby said:“I can’t see how it won’t hurt Heinz. The firm says it won’t affect production, but the site is making two million cans - including beans and soups - a day, and the timing of this stoppage makes it difficult to restart production again.”
Stressing that Unite was keen on last-minute dialogue to avoid strike action, Formby also disputed the the company's claim that lines of dialogue remain open: “Heinz say they were still talking to us, but they’re not talking to shop stewards or ourselves. We don’t want to hurt the company, but we do want a fair deal for workers.”
Firm defends offer
The Heinz spokesman stressed that pay and benefits for Kitt Green workers are “among the very best in the country and in the top quartile in the region”, at 30% above the UK median for manual workers; he said that staff contentment meant that only one per cent per year left to find alternative jobs.
“The excellent pay and benefits is also reflected in the huge number of applications we receive when vacancies arise. We received over 350 applications for this year’s intake of six apprenticeships, and over 160 of our temporary staff applied for 12 permanent roles."
Explaining that Heinz pay awards are not linked to RPI or CPI, he pointed to pay increases of 4.5% and 5.4% in the previous two years, at “above market rates”, while most managers suffered a pay freeze in 2009 and only received a 2.7% wage increase this year with bonuses cut by 20%.
“Looking forward, we have been able to propose one of the best pay offers in the industry," he said. "In fact, Heinz shop stewards recommended the deal on offer to members on two occasions during the pay negotiations."