AWE staff balloted for industrial action as National Highways strike plans falter

Prospect says officials maintaining nuclear deterrent are struggling with basic costs of living
Atomic Weapons Establishment in Burghfield. Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

By Tevye Markson

05 Sep 2023

Officials at the Atomic Weapons Establishment could take strike action over pay after being offered a 6% rise.

The Prospect union said the offer “fell well short of expectations” and accused the Ministry of Defence research facility of refusing to negotiate or explain its reasoning for not holding talks.

Meanwhile, proposed strikes at National Highways by fellow civil service union PCS will not go ahead as its ballot did not reach the necessary 50% voting threshold.

‘No option’ but to ballot members, says Prospect

Prospect has asked its members at AWE if they are prepared to strike or take action short of a strike. It said it launched the ballot after warning repeatedly that unless pay problems are addressed, recruitment and retention issues will continue and AWE will struggle to maintain the skill levels needed

The MoD-owned company, which designs and manufactures nuclear warheads, faces problems with recruitment and retention as it loses a high number of staff and graduates to other employers, forcing it to use expensive contractors to fill skills gaps.

Prospect also slammed the lack of engagement over the pay deal, which is an average 6% pay rise for 2023-24, some of which will be performance-related pay.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “Several years of deteriorating workforce engagement and stagnating real-terms pay has left workers at AWE with no option but to move once again towards industrial action.

“The lack of proper engagement has been typified by management presenting the offer as a done deal, with no rationale given for the number, nor any space for negotiation.”

Clancy said staff are “struggling with the basic costs of living, which is simply unbelievable in the organisation that is building and maintaining our nuclear deterrent”.

Headquartered in Aldermaston, Berkshire, AWE works closely with the Defence Nuclear Organisation. It is responsible for designing, manufacturing and supporting warheads for the UK's nuclear deterrent programme.

“This is not a workforce that can bear a high level of churn while safely functioning – the jobs require too high a degree of training,” Clancy said.

“If the MoD and AWE don’t think again and make a pay offer that reflects the still-rocketing cost of living, there is a real risk that AWE will struggle to recruit and retain the skills that it needs.”

The ballot is running from 1 September to 15 September. 

An AWE spokesperson said: “As soon as the pay mandate extended to AWE, in its capacity as an arm’s-length body of government, was released, negotiations with our trade unions, Unite and Prospect, began. The offer compares favourably with the best deals achieved across the wider public sector and in private defence industries."

AWE said it was disappointed at the decision to go to ballot and will "continue to engage with trade unions in working towards reaching a satisfactory resolution for all parties".

The organisation added: “The safety and security of AWE sites are of the highest priority and in the event of industrial action pre-planned contingency measures would be implemented to ensure the continued safety of operations.  Delivery of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be unaffected.” 

National Highways strike plans fail to ignite

Plans for strikes at National Highways, meanwhile, fell just 7% short of the 50% threshold needed to stage industrial action.

Of those who voted in the PCS ballot, 79% backed strike action.

The union had launched the ballot over National Highways' refusal to offer its staff the £1,500 cost of living payment that the Cabinet Office set out in its pay remit for government departments. 

PCS said its members have been prevented from taking industrial action by the “anti-trade union 50% turnout threshold”.

Earlier this summer, the union managed to get the British Museum and the Care Quality Commission to change tack over plans to not to give employees the lump-sum payment by announcing strikes.

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