DEFENCE chiefs have been warned not to enlist soldiers to break the first strike at a munitions depot that supplies missiles to Ukraine.

Workers at an Ministry of Defence weapons plant in Ayrshire began a two-week strike yesterday (Monday) which it is claimed threatens munition supplies after accusing the Ministry of Defence of breaking a pledge to hold meaningful pay talks.

Trade union officials say there are fears that as part of an MoD contingency plans troops are being brought in to try and prevent any disruption.

But they have warned that any move would be "inflammatory" and risks deepening the dispute.

Yesterday, as the strike resumed, there were unconfirmed reports that a white van carrying five soldiers was said to have entered the complex shortly after 7am while rumours persist that soldiers have been on-site on Sundays over the summer to be trained in the workers’ roles.

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The MoD said it had contingency plans in place to minimise disruption and said the strike would have no effect on missile deliveries to Ukraine.

Nearly 50 staff who handle Storm Shadow and Brimstone missiles assembled at the MoD munitions plant at Beith began their strike yesterday (Monday).

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The GMB union suspended its plans to stage that strike in mid-August after the MoD agreed to talks at the conciliation service Acas but union leaders said they did so under "false pretences" and in "bad faith".

GMB Scotland later accused the Ministry of Defence of "playing games" and risking the trust of staff at the arms depot, run by Defence, Equipment & Support (DE&S) GMB Scotland organiser Chris Kennedy said: “If the Ministry of Defence has been advised to use soldiers to break this strike then it has been be badly advised.

“Trust in management is already at rock bottom after we suspended action to allow talks at Acas only to be badly let down.

“We had been assured decision-makers would be arriving with constructive proposals to resolve this dispute but they didn’t and there wasn’t.

“It was an exercise in bad faith and disrespect and if soldiers are now drafted in to do the jobs of our members, there could be grave consequences for industrial relations at Beith now and in the long term.

“Managers must take the greatest care not to make any more poor decisions that risk causing even more serious problems.”

Pickets formed at the gates to the munitions depot on Monday morning as two weeks of industrial action began after four days of targeted strikes failed to secure a resolution in the dispute over pay and bonuses.

The strike is an escalation of a dispute between the GMB’s members at Beith DE&S agency – the MoD body that handles the military’s supplies, equipment and weapons – over their pay and bonuses. In June and July, it staged a handful of one-day stoppages, the first in the agency’s history.

DE&S delivers equipment and support services to all the UK armed forces but staff are divided between craft workers, who assemble weapons, and non-craft colleagues, who move the arms around the site and load them for shipment.

Staff have complained about a two-tier workplace where the gap between the salaries of craft workers and non-craft colleagues, who support their work and prepare equipment for transport, has widened dramatically.

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The GMB say extra payments and bonuses have been made to managers and craft workers in recent years but not to non-craft colleagues often earning less than £21,000 a year while being asked to take responsibility for multi-million pound military equipment.

The GMB estimates its members, who handle, load and transport the missiles, are up to £18,000 a year worse off than the specialist staff who assemble them. They say the pay gap between craft and non-craft workers has tripled in recent years.

GMB Scotland secretary Louise Gilmour urged management to resolve the dispute or risk long-term damage to industrial relations.

“A two-tier culture has been allowed to embed itself in this workplace and risks good working relationships now and in the future," she said.

“Our members are doing important and responsible jobs and simply want that work to be fairly recognised. Instead, they have seen the gap between their salaries and that of their colleagues stretch wider and wider.

“Everyone brings different skills to their work and that should be recognised but the role of our members is fundamental to the effective operation of this important site.

“They are only asking for fairness and the support they have received from Scotland to Ukraine shows why they deserve it.”

Scottish Labour MSP Katy Clark is among those who have written to defence secretary Ben Wallace to demand the MoD urgently negotiate, citing the “vital work they do in supporting Ukrainian resistance to Russia's invasion”.

The West Scotland region MSP and Scottish Labour's community safety spokesperson wrote: “Given the immense importance of the work they are doing, seeking to ensure equipment reaches allies under siege in Ukraine, it is concerning that management has fomented such unnecessary ill will and division among the workforce by creating huge pay disparities."

The MoD has said that it remained "open to dialogue with GMB to discuss the issues raised and work towards resolving them".

The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) has urged DE&S to settle the row and protect the supply of arms, including missiles, to the frontline.

Beith was established in 1943, as an MoD Munitions Depot during World War II. The site has facilities to store, maintain, modify, refurbish, produce and test weapons for all the armed services.

A Ministry of Defence spokesmans said:  “The proposed strike by GMB members will have no effect on our ongoing support to Ukraine. Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) has well-established contingency plans in place to mitigate the impact of strike action while also ensuring all activities are carried out safely and securely by appropriately trained employees.

“DE&S management has put forward an offer which would significantly improve the pay of the workers in dispute in a sustainable and affordable way. The DE&S reward framework is designed to be fair and equitable and to recognise the knowledge, skills and experience employees bring to their roles. As with all employers, employees are paid differently depending on grade as well as the nature of their role."

The MoD said that through the recent 2023 Pay Award, DE&S has uplifted the annual pay range minimum for the employees in question by £3,000, representing an increase of 14.63% in base pay.  They said the offer DE&S has left on the table is that the employees in question will have the opportunity to achieve a further uplift from April 2024, which would represent a 37% increase in base pay since 2022.