WORKERS at a Cheshire haulage company have gone on strike in a dispute over compulsory new contracts that could see wages slashed by more than a third.

Backed by the union Unite, they manned the picket line outside Eastham Refinery on North Road in Ellesmere Port from midnight in protest at actions taken by Suttons Tankers, based in Widnes.

Unite says the company planned to dismiss more than 30 workers based at the site today (Friday, January 19) and re-hire them in February on substantially inferior contracts.

The move includes 23 drivers, four garage staff and two 'shunters', who load the vehicles with hazardous cargo. They work across two sites at the bitumen refinery and Thomas Hardie Commercials garage.

Father-of-three David Newman, who is employed as a shunter by Suttons, said the strike action was necessary to “save his livelihood”.

He said: “The last thing I wanted to do was go on strike but the alternative is to take a step backward more than 20 years as that would be the pay and conditions I would be condemning my family to.

“If this goes ahead as it is there would be a very real chance of me losing my property. I would be losing close to £400 a week which I just can't afford. I've been here 16 years and at my time of life where else would I go?”

Mr Newman, 57, told The Standard that Suttons was proposing to slash all employees' pay by between 37 and 40 per cent.

Currently staff contribute 10 per cent of their pay to their pension pot, with the company adding a further six per cent. Under the new contract this would be reduced to six per cent and one per cent respectively.

Furthermore, company bosses propose to increase weekly working hours from 37.5 to 47.5 and slash holidays from five weeks a year to four.

Mr Newman, of Westenra Avenue, added: “Who can honestly say they could afford a 38 per cent pay cut, add 10 hours a week compulsory, have your pension slashed and much more – believe me we have no alternative to this action.”

The union is urging Suttons Tankers’ management team to take the proposals off the table and enter “meaningful negotiations to resolve this dispute and avert strike action.”

Staff plan to continue with the strike action until the threat of being sacked is removed and talks can progress.

A total of 29 staff joined the picket line at midnight today and plan to have between six and 10 on the site at any one time.

Unite regional officer Colin Carr said: “Suttons Tankers’ management has attempted to smoke screen these proposals in both a sham consultation and under the guise of redundancies.

“Our members have been given an ultimatum; accept our proposals before Friday 19 January or face losing your job.

“Strike action is always a measure of last resort, but our members have had enough – they are determined to fight this attack on their terms and conditions - which slash our members’ conditions and pay rates.

“Unite has remained committed to resolving this dispute, and we will continue to hold talks up to and beyond any strike action. We urge the management to take these proposals off the table and enter into meaningful talks in order to find a way forward and avert strike action next week.”

In response, a spokesman for Suttons Tankers said: “It is unfortunate that we are in the current situation and have not yet been able to reach an agreement.

“We believe that the changes we are proposing to our employees contracts are reasonable, competitive and fairly compensated for under the terms of the offer we have made.

“We, of course, remain open to further discussions.”