STRIKING Heinz workers are locked in talks with the conciliation service ACAS in a bid to settle the pay dispute.
Union leaders representing more than 1,200 production workers at the Kitt Green plant agreed to sit down with officers from Liverpool-based peacemakers yesterday.
If there is no resolution Unite has announced that staff will stage their fifth 24-hour walk out next Wednesday (January 19).
The move to seek the help of independent arbitration in settling the month-long pay dispute follows a resounding two to one rejection of the canned food market leader’s latest offer of 3.5 per cent this year and 3.4 per cent in 2012.
Unite had agreed to put the deal - which included a £200 non-consolidated bonus - to its members, but warned that the 0.6 per cent improvement to the existing offer still fell short of the workers’ expectations and the cost of living.
In the ballot, 65.4 per cent of Heinz’s 1,200-strong workforce voted to reject the company’s revised offer.
The strikes are losing production of more than one a half million cans of baked beans and soups, claims Unite, costing the firm £1m for every 24-hour shutdown.
Unite national officer for food and drink Jennie Formby said: “Following the result, Heinz management have said they want to enter into conciliation through ACAS and Unite has agreed to this.
“However, the company is fully aware that the industrial action will continue until we reach a settlement that is acceptable to our members so I hope that when we meet they will be prepared to add some real value to the offer.
“Our members have sent the loudest possible message to Heinz management – we deserve a better deal.”
Ian Wright, Unite deputy convenor at the Wigan plant, said: “As expected the new offer, which is still a real terms pay cut, is not acceptable to our members and strike action will resume tomorrow.
“Heinz must understand the depth of feeling among our members.
“They work hard and Heinz is a vastly wealthy company – it can afford to pay its workers a fair wage.
“It is in Heinz’s hands now to come back to the negotiating table.
“Our door remains open but we won’t back down until Heinz dishes up a fair deal.”
Heinz bosses had claimed that the new improved offer represented substantial movement on their part, aimed at resolving the dispute.
In a stark and increasingly tough warning, a spokesman said: “The outcome of the ballot is not a vote in support of jobs or future investment in manufacturing at Kitt Green.
“The site is already the most costly for labour across the Heinz network in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
“The action being orchestrated by Unite will only make Kitt Green less competitive.”
He also attacked the poor sickness absence record at the factory, the biggest of its type in Europe, which, he claimed, is running at twice the national average.
Heinz point out that they are a top payer and top employer, claiming that the workforce already enjoys 30 per cent more salary than than the middle earnings level of those of those on similar jobs in the industry.
Today a worker who is backing the action told the Evening Post: “It’s not just about the level of the pay offer.
“There was a lot of anger about all the other conditions that the management wanted to attach to the pay deal and the fact that the management get a £15,000 bonus while they wanted to take ours altogether.
“I don’t think that the workers are greedy, we are just wll hacked off that the share holders and all the rest off the crew get all the rewards for the success of the place and we don’t.
“There is another union mass meeting at Goose Green and all the staff I have spoken to remain solidly behind the strikes.”