Remploy’s 2, 800 disabled workers will stage two 24-hour strikes later this month, after an “overwhelming” vote in favour of industrial action across the company’s 54 remaining sheltered factories.
An overtime ban will begin on 12 July, with the first one-day strike on 19 July, and another to follow a week later.
Industrial action could escalate even further, with occupations of factories by disabled workers still an option.
Four-fifths of Remploy members of the GMB union voted to strike, as did three-fifths of members of Unite.
The government announced in March that 36 of the 54 remaining Remploy factories across the UK would close by the end of 2012, with the loss of more than 1,500 disabled people’s jobs, while there would be further consultation over the future of the other 18 factories.
But Phil Davies, GMB national secretary, claimed Remploy had made it clear that the other 18 – employing another 1,300 disabled people – were “now being looked at with a view to closing”.
He said: “These closures are going ahead without any consideration of the feelings and needs of these workers and their families or their future job prospects.
“To close a factory that employs disabled people in the present economic climate is a sentence to a life of unemployment and poverty.”
Davies claimed that asset-stripping companies were bidding to take over some of the factories, with many bidders interested mainly in the valuable land they were built on.
He said he believed there would be no more than three or four factories left by the time the closure programme had ended, with only “a few disabled people shoved into a corner” still working there.
He said the unions had not ruled out occupations of Remploy factories, and added: “That will be up to the workers. If they want to decide that I am sure that will happen.”
The planned strike action came as the Remploy unions published their own alternative strategy for saving most of the factories, and moving the company into profit by 2017.
This would see some mergers of factories but only voluntary redundancies, with the factories led by disabled people.
The Remploy closures have divided the disability movement, with some organisations and activists welcoming moves to close what they see as segregated, sheltered workplaces, while others argue that shutting the factories and making their disabled workers redundant cannot be right at a time of recession.
The position of disabled people’s organisations such as Disability Rights UK and Breakthrough UK has become increasingly unclear, with both unable to say whether they would continue to back the factory closures if they lead to disabled workers becoming unemployed.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), which has opposed the closures and has called for the factories to be relaunched as user-led enterprises, said: “We welcome the ballot to strike. These factories are real factories, not tokenistic work schemes or day centre equivalents.
“The talk of segregation is a red herring. This is an industrial dispute about the jobs of disabled workers who have been exploited by a greedy, top-heavy management, and industrial action is appropriate.”
Remploy said it was “disappointed” with the threat of industrial action.
A Remploy spokeswoman said: “The company continues to consider proposals put forward by the unions as part of the consultation on the proposed closure or transfer into new ownership of 36 factories announced in March.
“Strike action will do nothing to secure the future jobs of Remploy staff.
“We are concerned that industrial action could deter future buyers and existing customers as Remploy continues to explore future prospects for the 36 factories and the possibility of some moving into new ownership.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We’re disappointed to hear that the unions are proposing to take strike action which will do nothing to secure the future jobs of Remploy staff.
“The government would encourage the trade unions to fully engage with Remploy during the consultation process to provide the best possible support and success for disabled staff who may leave the company.”
5 July 2012