Montupet counts the cost of strife
By ROSIE COWAN, Business Editor
WEST Belfast car parts manufacturer Montupet is facing a bill of more
WEST Belfast car parts manufacturer Montupet is facing a bill of more than £2m for the bitter 10-week strike eventually settled last Wednesday.
But management say they hope to put a difficult time behind them and continue with a previously planned expansion which could create 200 new jobs in the next two years. The plant currently employs around 450 workers.
The dispute was one of the longest and most controversial in recent local industrial history. The French-owned firm sacked 18 strikers and took legal action against some, threatening them with possible jail sentences.
Claim and counter-claim flew between the company and the strikers, with allegations of intimidation on both sides and a rising tide of ill-feeling between those who returned to work and those on the picket line.
Some of the strikers alleged they were pressurised by management to return to work during the action, which did not have union support because it had not been properly balloted.
But workers who did come back into the factory claim they suffered frightening harassment, including shattered car windscreens and masked men turning up at their homes in the middle of the night.
Managing director Georges Senninger originally estimated the cost of the strike at £2.8m but now says it will be less than that. Part of the settlement reached includes a £4,500 package for each of the sacked workers and severance pay based on enhanced redundancy for those who do not wish to return to work.
The agreement was brokered by the Labour Relations Agency and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions after weeks of deadlock. A trust fund, managed by jointly by representatives from Montupet and the sacked workers, will administer the money over a period of months, but the beneficiaries will have to adhere to strict terms, including no further pickets or intimidation of Montupet employees.
It is understood no further court action is pending.
The strike originally grew out of a pay dispute which started last autumn, which led to a vote for a series of half-day strikes, which started on April 10.
On April 14, the all-out strike began after an incident where strikers say managers operated a machine in their absence.
Because of their work-to-rule the fitters refused to return to operate the machine until a health and safety check had been carried out.
The strikers claim the two men were then sacked but management say this was not the case.
This led to a walk out of 270 factory floor workers but the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union told members to go back because the strike had not been properly balloted and was therefore illegal.
The matter escalated when management sacked 18 strikers it perceived as ringleaders and later issued several injunctions against some pickets.
The strikers said they would only return to work if the sacked men were reinstated but management stood firm, saying legal action was its only recourse.
Local politicians, including ousted West Belfast MP Joe Hendron, took the strikers' side, and returning workers passed the picket lines daily in a convoy, with the RUC a regular presence at the factory gate.
It is thought less than 50 workers were still on strike when the dispute was settled, and one of the 18 sacked, Mark Harbinson, admits it was a no-win situation.
'This has been a long and very tiring dispute, it has hurt not just the strikers but their families, they haven't got what they wanted but they are pleased to see an end to it.' DIARY OF EVENTS 1996 October - pay dispute begins 1997 April 10 - first of half-day strikes April 14 - alleged sacking of fitters and all-out strike begins April 16 - 18 men sacked May 1 - Montupet issues writs against 28 named strikers seeking an injunction to stop them picketing May 6 - management offers new package accepted by some workers but strike continues May 16 - first in series of Friday lunchtime protests supported by trade unionists and other factory workers June 13 - threat to jail five strikers lifted June 18 - strike settled The dispute was one of the longest and most controversial in recent local industrial history. The French-owned firm sacked 18 strikers and took legal action against some, threatening them with possible jail sentences.