GSK staffers kick off series of strikes in UK for the first time in drugmaker's history

GSK’s U.K. manufacturing staffers are no longer merely threatening to strike.

Workers at GSK’s Montrose facility in Scotland on Tuesday kicked off a series of strikes that are slated to affect six of the company’s sites and last throughout May.

While certain GSK workers have previously walked off the job elsewhere, this marks the first time in GSK’s history that unionized workers in its home country voted for—and actually proceeded with—wide-ranging strikes.

The strikes, staged by local union organization Unite, will later spread to GSK’s manufacturing sites in Irvine, Ware, Barnard Castle, Worthing and Ulverston, with the last one scheduled to end by May 26.

The employees are striking after Unite and the pharma giant failed to reach an agreement on pay raises. In April, 750 Unite members—representing about 20% of GSK’s manufacturing workforce in the U.K.—voted for the action. It’s not clear how many employees will actually go on strike.

Engineers, process technicians, lab analysts, warehouse workers and fire officers are among those set to strike, according to Unite.

As for the facilities’ functions, the Montrose facility makes vaccines, the Irvine site manufactures antibiotics and the Ware plant produces Ellipta inhalers. Products handled by the other sites include biologics.

In a statement to Fierce Pharma, a GSK spokesperson said the company is “working to mitigate any risk of significant supply disruption,” pointing to its “extensive experience” in managing its supply chain against disruptions.

While this strike represents the first internal U.K. work stoppage in GSK’s history, the company actually faced a similar threat last year. But the drugmaker successfully avoided the disturbance in 2022 by reaching an agreement with Unite shortly before a planned walkout.

This time, the two sides couldn’t find common ground on the exact size of pay increases.

In its “final offer,” GSK agreed to a 6% increase in base pay, shift pay and allowances, plus a one-time payment of 1,300 pounds sterling. Combined, the package represented a 9.7% pay increase for workers, according to the company.

But Unite argued the offer was too low, pointing to the high inflation rate in the U.K. and GSK’s 2.1 billion pound operating profit in the first quarter. On the same day that Unite unveiled the strike plan in April, the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics said the country’s rate of consumer price inflation had been 10.1% in March.

Recognizing that the cost of living has risen sharply in 2022, GSK said in a statement that it believes its offer to the U.K. manufacturing team is “fair and reasonable.”

“We are therefore disappointed that the Unite union has chosen to undertake this industrial action,” the company said.

For its part, Unite executive Bob MacGregor said GSK has “deliberately chosen to escalate the dispute by walking away from negotiations.”

More broadly, GSK is implementing an average 5% salary increase for its U.K. workforce in 2023, according to the company’s annual report. CEO Emma Walmsley is getting a 4% increase for her base salary to 1.31 million pounds this year.