Drax and Unite union in disagreement over proposed redundancies

The UK’s largest union, Unite, is preparing to hold a ballot for industrial action against Drax Group over proposed redundancies following the planned closure of its coal-fired units.

The directors of Drax power station in North Yorkshire, which largely runs on biomass, have been accused by Unite of “bad faith” over 20 proposed redundancies, with the union claiming that a 2019 pay deal "pledged that there would be no compulsory job losses".

However, Drax announced potential job reductions due to the closure of its coal-fired units in February this year and a statement by Unite on 27 February references the potential for compulsory redundancies. In the statement, Unite's regional officer Shane Sweeting said that the union was "exploring every avenue to protect the interests of our members and reduce the number of compulsory redundancies."

Drax said it gave employees more than one years' notice of the redundancies scheduled to take place in April 2021, and that it recognises the difficulties posed for them and their families. A spokesperson for Drax Group said it has been talking to its employees and unions "for over two years" about the impact coal closure will have on people.

In a statement on 27 February about the planned closure of the coal-fired units, Will Gardiner, Drax's CEO, said: "In making the decision to stop using coal and decarbonise the economy, it's vital that the impact on people across the north is recognised and steps are taken to ensure that people have the skills needed for the new jobs of the future."

The firm has plans to develop bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) at the power station to boost the UK economy and support the development of a zero-carbon industrial cluster in the UK's Humber region, delivering clean growth and protecting around 55,000 jobs.

On 9 June, Unite said it was preparing to hold the ballot for industrial action, including the option for strike action, later this month, with the possibility of strikes later in the summer. A consultative ballot saw members vote by 85% to proceed to a full-scale ballot, according to a statement by Unite.

The union said the dispute centres on the six-unit site at Selby where Drax Group is planning to close two coal-fired units in April 2021. The other four units are run on wood pellets. The announcement of the planned strike follows the news that the UK has generated electricity for two months without using coal. Drax Power Station generates approximately 5% of the UK’s electricity, currently using a mix of biomass and coal.

Unite’s regional officer Shane Sweeting said: “What we have here is a classic case of bad faith by the management as this highly profitable company pledged there would be no compulsory redundancies when the pay deal was agreed in 2019. They have now backtracked on this pledge, despite the Selby staff working flat-out during the pandemic and being classed as key workers.

“Our highly skilled members are furious and voted by 85% to proceed to an industrial action ballot later this month, which could give them the green light for strike action towards the end of July.”

Sweeting said Drax’s management has a “window of opportunity” to negotiate with Unite for a natural wastage scheme as workers leave the plant’s employment. He added: “We note the massive profits that the Selby site alone generated for the Drax Group - £415 million (€465 million) in the last financial year.

“A natural wastage scheme would cost £25 million (€28 million) a year during the limited period it would be in operation – which is ‘small beer’ compared with the very generous profits generated. It is time for Drax management to have a serious rethink.”

Drax's spokesperson said: "Stopping using coal is something Drax has been working on for well over a decade. The move away from coal is the right decision for the environment, our communities and our business.

"We have been talking to our employees and the unions for over two years about the impact coal closure will have on people, because we recognise this is going to be difficult for them and their families. We are consulting with trades unions and employee representatives on enhanced redundancy packages and support is being provided to those affected."

Drax said it gave employees over a years' notice, as the job losses will take place in April 2021, stating that this means the firm has time to support those affected to get "the best outcomes" for them. It added: "Earlier this year, we announced that we're talking to the government, trades unions and other industrial businesses in the north of England about setting up a Zero Carbon Skills Taskforce to help develop the skills needed to enable people in the north to take advantage of opportunities beyond coal, as we transition to a greener economy after the COVID-19 crisis."

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