Heinz is the latest fmcg supplier to face union action – but it won’t be the last given the growing level of unrest across the sector, says Hannah Stodell

As the nights draw in, many people like to turn to their favourite comfort foods such as baked beans. This winter, however, they could be in for a nasty surprise when they head to the supermarket for a tin.

Heinz has become the latest supplier to find itself embroiled in potential industrial action. Staff at its flagship UK plant in Wigan, which houses about 1,200 workers and churns out 1.5 million tins of beans a day, have called on Unite to ballot for strike action after rejecting a below inflation headline pay rise of 3.3%.

Its workers are not the only ones to have threatened to walk out recently. In the past few weeks, employees at seven Coca-Cola Enterprises UK sites have staged demonstrations in protest at restructuring plans. And Bakkavör, Kraft, Nestlé and Diageo have all had run-ins with staff (see below). So, given the general level of unrest, what chances does Heinz have of reaching an amicable settlement? And should fmcg suppliers be bracing themselves for a winter of discontent?

While other disputes centre on pay freezes and redundancy terms, Heinz workers are up in arms over the pay rise they are being offered, which they say is far lower than the RPI of 5.3% in April or 4.6% in September and should not be capped at 3% next year, particularly in light of Heinz's strong group performance.

Unite has pressed Heinz's UK management for urgent talks and warned it would begin balloting members at the site within two weeks unless there is progress. Twenty four-hour stoppages have already been mooted.

Strikes aren't inevitable, of course. Last year, the threat was enough to force Diageo's hand (see boxout), Unite's doggedness resulting in an improved redundancy deal for the drink supplier's Scottish workers. But Heinz has rejected initial approaches and maintains the deal on the table is fair.

"We are perplexed a ballot is being held and an offer of a headline pay increase of 3.3% this year and up to 3% next has been rejected when site union representatives and the national officer acknowledge this final offer is the best that can be achieved," said a spokesman. "Against an uncertain economic climate and severe government cutbacks, this is a great deal for Heinz people in Wigan."

Time will tell if Heinz staff agree. Meanwhile, tensions are running high elsewhere. As The Grocer went to press, CCE had become involved in a second dispute with employees, this time at its Edmonton plant over pay.

Experts warn that the general industrial relations climate is set to deteriorate further over the coming months. "There will be discontent across the board given a large proportion of companies have had pay freezes in the past year or two," says Angela Coleshill, HR director at the FDF. "This year is starting to hammer home what their settlements will look like."

She cites manufacturers organisation EEF's recent pay settlements survey (July-September), which showed UK companies continue to show restraint. "Over the last three months, pay rises have averaged at 1.7%, and pay freezes accounted for 23.2% of settlements," she notes. "This is a business-wide picture and by no means unique to the food sector where pay awards are staying below inflation, with many member companies reporting 2% to 2.5% pay rises."

Coleshill praises the "relatively responsible" relationship between employees and employers in the food industry, but notes a growing inclination on the part of the unions towards strike action. "You get the impression a strike is called too early in some cases where it's an adversarial relationship not about negotiation but more about the headlines. Anything of this nature is bad news for the sector and consumers." And, potentially, for fans of Beanz.

Other disputes 

, October 2010 (ongoing)
Unite fears Bakkavör is poised to chop 300 jobs from the 1,200-strong workforce at the Bourne plant and force down wages for the rest. A 90-day consultation is under way. To date no industrial action has been threatened. 

Cadbury/Kraft, August 2010 (resolved)
Cadbury employees accepted a pay increase of 3.7% from new owners Kraft after battling for months with management and threatening to strike. The improved pay deal was backdated to March. Unite dubbed the original offer of 2% "an insult".

Nestlé, July 2010 (ongoing)
Nestlé entered talks with Unite after the union threatened to hold a national ballot on industrial action. Nestlé had offered a 1% pay rise coupled with a 1.5% bonus. Nestlé said it was "confident" talks would be concluded soon.

Diageo, December 2009 (resolved)
Diageo workers in Scotland secured better redundancy packages ahead of a restructuring, following a strike threat in early 2010. Diageo agreed to raise termination payments by £4,000 to £9,000 per person and opened up the pension scheme.