In April, following an intense organising effort, Unite members at Balcas – a Fermanagh-based wood mill – voted overwhelmingly for strike action, commencing with a two-day stoppage. The workers, who produce wood pellets for the RHI pump-primed renewable heating market, were paid a basic wage substantially below the legal minimum, a system only sustainable due to bonuses keeping pay above the legal threshold.
Bosses sought to deduct the annual uplift in the minimum wage from the workers’ bonuses. The response of 140 workers was a powerful two-day strike action, at which articulated lorries bringing timber to the mill turned back from picket lines. The strike ended with the bosses conceding a deal worth, on average, £1,000 each.
The outcome is viewed as a total victory for the workers and has boosted the confidence of workers across the county. Unite members at Encirc (formerly Quinn Glass) in Derrylin initiated a ballot on strike action in conjunction with colleagues in Elton, Cheshire. Both sets of workers have previously rejected a pay offer of 2.4%. A joint bargaining unit including both plants has been formed, increasing the workers’ leverage ahead of the industrial dispute. Already, workers at Elton have voted overwhelmingly for action and a coordinated strike now looks likely.
In the centenary year of the Fermanagh Council of Trades Unions, with trade unionists and labour activists leading mass mobilisations in the defence of NHS services, with the first private sector strike actions in decades and the election of the first Cross-Community Labour Alternative councillor in Enniskillen, Fermanagh is very much at the cutting-edge of the redevelopment of socialist politics in Northern Ireland.