Business group the Institute of Directors (IoD) has waded into the ongoing industrial dispute at Barbour’s Gateshead facility as striking workers marched on the firm’s South Shields headquarters.
The North East arm of the IoD has called on the union to keep “cool heads” and end its strike action which is scheduled to run until the end of the month.
But officials from Unite say the intervention from the business group is misinformed and risks inflaming the situation ahead of talks between the union and company management on Monday.
Striking workers marched across South Shields today to Barbour House where they delivered a letter addressed to Dame Margaret Barbour, the company’s chair.
The letter calls on Dame Margaret to intervene and end the dispute.
The walk-out follows a six-day strike in December over new contractual changes which would require employees to work until 11pm, and the removal of extra payment for unsocial hours.
Unite members on picket line at the Barbour warehouse in GatesheadUnite members on picket line at the Barbour warehouse in Gateshead
Unite argues the changes, which will come into effect at the end of March, prompt safety concerns about staff who rely on public transport to attend work, and put pressure on employees who will need to arrange extra childcare.
North East chairman of the IoD, Graham Robb, said: “The IoD has members running this world class British exporting company. They are working hard to introduce new shifts that will enhance productivity and ensure that the growing international demand for Barbour clothes is met.
“People should know that the union and management were at ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) until very recently. The management made concessions. The union stopped talking and refused to put the new management position to its members. I urge the trade union to call off the industrial action and go back to ACAS to reach a deal.
“The union would be better returning to constructive negotiation rather than organising demonstrations and petitions. This is a brilliant company that commands widespread respect and supports many good causes. It is time for cool heads, negotiation and a return to work.”
But in response a Unite spokesman said: “The IoD is clearly misinformed and would do better to hold their counsel. This counterproductive intervention from Graham Robb risks inflaming the situation ahead of talks at ACAS on Monday.
“Unite members, many earning below the living wage, have worked hard to make Barbour the success it is today and feel betrayed by the company’s sign or be sacked ultimatum.
“We will be entering the ACAS talks in positive manner and hope Barbour’s management do likewise so that we can reach a negotiated settlement.”
Barbour has over 600 employees in the North East, 160 of which work at the Gateshead warehouse. Just over 70 are involved in the strike.
The firm says it has been in consultation with warehouse employees since May 2014 and needs to introduce shift patterns to remain competitive and meet customer demand.
Brenda Readman-Bell, finance and IT director at Barbour, who is leading the discussions said: “We have been working closely with the workforce and the union for the nearly 8 months to agree new terms and we have made significant improvements to the original deal to meet their demands.
“Barbour needs to introduce the changes to the shift system because we are at capacity in the warehouse both in terms of meeting health and safety obligations and in delivering efficiency. Without making these necessary changes to the shift patterns we are imperilling the prosperity of our business and this has major implications for the livelihood of our entire workforce.
“We are extremely keen to bring this to a positive conclusion as evidenced in all the concessions we have agreed and for that reason we have asked for a further meeting with ACAS on Monday as well as meeting our two local MPs”.
Friday’s march set off from the Tesco car park located at Towers Place in South Shields and arrived at Barbour House at 9.50am.
A rally followed the march and featured speakers such as Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn, Emma Lewell-Buck MP for South Shields and Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary.
Unite regional officer Fazia Hussain-Brown said: “Barbour’s actions run contrary to the family values the company says it holds dear. We hope that Dame Margaret listens to the workers’ concerns and ensures that the company’s management enters Monday’s talks in a constructive manner.
“Workers have shown through their solid support for the strike that they are prepared to stand firm to get a just settlement.
“Management should be under no illusion of the workforce’s resolve and we urge Dame Margaret Barbour to intervene and help resolve a dispute which is damaging the Barbour brand.”