GSK workers vote to strike over below inflation pay rise

Several hundred GlaxoSmithKline workers have voted to go on strike after rejecting a below inflation pay rise, setting the stage for an industrial battle unusual in the pharmaceutical industry.

Unite, the union representing the workers at manufacturing sites across the UK, said the strike would be the first in the drugmaker’s history. Unite members voted 86 per cent in favour of strike action.

GSK said it offered a pay increase of 4 per cent — but Unite said that was conditional on the union recommending it to its members, which it was not willing to do. The drugmaker’s first offer was 2.75 per cent.

Sharon Graham, Unite general secretary, described the rise as “not acceptable”, given the increase in inflation. The union has given GSK 48 hours to make an improved offer or face strike action.

“Never before have our members at GSK voted for strike action — their anger is a clear response to the company’s colossal corporate greed,” she said.

Unite said the dispute followed a difficult pay negotiation in 2021, when GSK initially said there was no budget for any increase, but made a 2 per cent award after strike action was threatened.

About 1,200 of GSK’s 3,500 UK manufacturing staff are covered by the collective bargaining agreement. GMB, which represents about 175 staff, did not vote in favour of strike action.

GSK said it had also paid a one-off award — equivalent to about 2 per cent in base salary — to all staff last year, as well as an above-target annual bonus.

“We are disappointed that the Unite union has taken the decision to strike, but remain committed to working with them to find a solution,” the company said.

The potential strike adds pressure to Emma Walmsley, GSK’s chief executive, who declared in February that this was a “landmark year” for the drugmaker. GSK is spinning off its consumer health business, which will be called Haleon and will be one of the largest companies on the FTSE.

After years of underperformance, GSK has been under pressure by activist investors, including US hedge fund Elliott Management, to improve the pipeline of its remaining pharma and vaccines business.

Walmsley received a pay package worth £8.2mn last year, with base pay rising 2 per cent year on year.

The workers’ vote to strike comes against a backdrop of increasingly difficult industrial relations for many UK employers, as staff see their pay eroded by soaring inflation, while companies struggle to fill vacancies in an increasingly tight labour market. Refuse collectors, hospital cleaners, criminal barristers and staff at the Financial Conduct Authority are among the disparate groups of workers engaged in or planning strike action.

GSK’s 2.75 per cent pay offer is on the low side, going by data gathered by the research group XpertHR. That found the median award in the three months to February was 3 per cent — the highest since 2008, but still well below consumer price inflation, which reached a 30-year high of 7 per cent in March. Official data show average weekly earnings, excluding bonuses, have fallen by 1 per cent in real terms over the past year.

Unite said the vote had involved several hundred staff, including engineers, technicians, lab analysts, warehouse workers, firefighters and labourers.