Almost 300 workers at one of the most prestigious colour book printers have been made redundant days before they were due to walk out in a 24-hour strike.
Employees at Butler and Tanner Printers Ltd in Frome, Somerset, which has produced books for Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson, as well as the book accompanying the BBC's Planet Earth series, have been holding a vigil outside their workplace since letters were sent to 287 staff over the weekend informing them that they had been made "redundant with immediate effect".
The gates to the 150-year-old print company, once regarded as one of the most prominent colour printers in the country, were padlocked shut yesterday morning and workers were informed that "strict security" was in place.
Unite, the union representing most of the workers, said most are owed approximately £1,200 in pay and pension contributions and were given no warning of the redundancies. The owner of the print company, Media and Print Investments (MPI), had been involved in a bitter dispute with Unite over a series of cost-cutting reforms at the loss-making company. They had been in the middle of negotiations when the redundancy letters were sent.
Mike Dolan, chairman of MPI, threatened to close the company if staff went on strike tomorrow. Union members said they had agreed to a number of reforms but were opposed to a clause in their new contract which would have forbidden them from negotiating through the union in future consultations.
Mr Dolan's company bought B&T last summer but despite annual sales worth £35m had difficulty making a profit because of the migration of colour book printing to lower-cost economies abroad.
In a statement released yesterday, Mr Dolan said MPI was not willing to continue funding B&T if the workers went on strike and accused the union of "economic vandalism".
"The shareholders were unwilling to pour good money down what could have been a drain and they declined to make further funding available," he said.
The statement placed the blame for the job losses squarely on the shoulders of Unite's negotiators. "Their miscalculation has cost 300 people their jobs – and sadly 100 of those people were not even in the union," it said. "The union has shown utter contempt for its own members and Butler & Tanner by unnecessarily publicising their strike threat in a crass attempt to exert pressure on the company. That was an act of wilful economic vandalism which frightened off too many of our customers, suppliers and financiers."
Unite called the redundancies a "despicable act". Members plan to meet today to discuss the possibility of taking legal action against MPI to reclaim what they say is up to £400,000 in unpaid wages and pension contributions.
National officer for Unite, Ann Field, said: "Unite will be demanding recompense in full from the perpetrators of this despicable act sacrificing people's jobs and livelihoods. Mike Dolan and former boss Andrew Hillman should be called to account for what they have done to the workers' jobs, their pensions and their community."
Darren Haine, an employee at the company for the past 16 years, rejected the accusations that the union had been unreasonable, saying employees had consistently tried to reach an agreement with management and had even agreed to a 5 per cent pay cut on top of an 8 per cent cut last year and changes to working practices.
"We all know that times are tough in the industry at the moment and we went into every negotiation session in good faith," he said. "But every time we thought we'd had a deal something else was put down in front of us."
Steve Smith, a regional officer for Unite, said: "A lot of those employees have been working there for 20 years or more. They were used to dealing with bosses who listened to them, but since Mr Nolan came round it's safe to say there's been a slightly different management style in place."