Co-op truck

The Co-op has accused Unite of ignoring its agreed processes, as a dispute over the firing of two disabled drivers at the supermarket’s Thurrock DC escalated.

Unite’s 345 drivers at Thurrock are set to vote on whether to go to a full-scale industrial action ballot in defence of two sacked colleagues and a third facing a similar fate.

The union said that if the consultative ballot, which takes place on 21 September, results in a vote for an industrial action ballot, it could open up the prospect of industrial action in the run up to Christmas.

Unite claims the two members were sacked by the Co-op for being disabled. The two have since lost their appeals against dismissal.

Unite regional officer Paul Travers said: “Our members are furious at the treatment meted out to these two colleagues by a hard-hearted management.

“The Co-op makes much song-and-dance about being an ethical employer, but here we have two workers with disabilities, who have worked for many years in the same role, being sacked.

Travers added that the Co-op had refused Unite’s offer to take the dispute to conciliation service ACAS.

“We can only assume the Co-op is not confident that the unfair dismissal of these members because they are disabled will stand up to the forensic scrutiny of neutral organisations,” he added.

However a spokesman for the Co-op said: "The Co-op has agreed an approach with Unite for resolving disputes and it is surprising that this process, which is to support our colleagues and Unite members, is being disregarded. We have committed to engage with ACAS in the event that our internal dispute resolution processes are unsuccessful. We will continue to support our colleagues and engage with the union throughout this process."

He added: “This is a very difficult case for all involved. It’s clear these colleagues are unable to fulfil their full roles and we’ve worked with them over time to adjust their duties within that role to meet their needs. Unfortunately, those duties have diminished over time and the colleagues have been unable to undertake the remaining duties of a driver.

“We have looked across our distribution network, wider food business and even in other Co-op businesses for work opportunities that these colleagues could undertake, but unfortunately there is nothing suitable. 

It is not appropriate to make redundancy payments to colleagues whose roles are not redundant. In fact they are very much needed. Unite’s threats of industrial action, unless redundancy payments are made, are therefore very unhelpful and misleading."