Strike action may be looming on construction sites after the Unite and Connect unions accused employers of breaching a collective agreement by failing to pay a 2.7% increase to mechanical workers due since 1 September.

The dispute involves around 13,000 workers in the mechanical contracting sector, who deal with installations on major sites including heating, ventilation and air conditioning services.

While some employers have paid the increase, Unite and Connect said that following a meeting today with the Mechanical Engineering Building Services Contractors Association (MEBSCA) and the Construction Industry Federation, the employer bodies had refused to commit to paying the agreed increase - leaving the unions with no alternative but to issue 14 days' notice of industrial action.

It is understood that construction employers had sought a deferral of the increases in light of the current Covid-19 situation.

Unite Regional Officer Tom Fitzgerald said: "It is now up to the employers to resolve this dispute by paying their workers the agreed pay increases which fell due on 1 September.  Otherwise, they will face an autumn of determined industrial action."

Earlier, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions confirmed that the five unions comprising the Congress Construction Industry Committee - BATU, Connect, OPATSI, SIPTU and Unite - had voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action if employers failed to pay a separate increase due on 1 October under the construction Sectoral Employment Order.

The precautionary ballot follows this summer's High Court ruling that the legally binding Sectoral Employment Order governing their terms and conditions were unconstitutional.

Connect, which represents 25,000 workers in all three sectors covered by SEOs warned that any employer that sought to alter or undercut agreed rates and conditions would be subject to industrial action.

General Secretary Paddy Kavanagh said: "Furthermore, site clients are now on notice that any such industrial action on any site would automatically involve our members employed across all three sectors."

Connect Assistant General Secretary Brian Nolan urged the Government to move swiftly to deliver legislation to rectify the constitutional defects in the laws governing SEOs.

Employers in the electrical contracting sector challenged the basis for establishing an SEO for the sector, and Mr Justice Garrett Simons found that the purported SEO for that sector was procedurally flawed and unconstitutional.

However, he also ruled that two other SEOs - for the mechanical contracting and construction sectors - were also unconstitutional, but issued a stay on declaring them void pending an appeal by the state, meaning they still have legal force.

Construction unions decided to hold a "protective" ballot in case employers would breach the terms previously agreed in the SEO or in their National Collective Employment Agreement based on the High Court ruling. 

Meanwhile, under the general construction SEO, a pay increase of 2.7% is due to be paid on the 1 October 2020 - and unions argue that any failure to do so will be a breach of the SEO and unlawful.

Congress General Secretary Patricia King said the ballot result showed that workers in the construction sector were determined that employers would not be allowed to renege on their legal responsibilities to pay the 2.7% increase.

"Employers who fail to do so will be pursued and workers will take industrial action if necessary" Ms King said.

The Chairperson of the Congress Construction Industry Committee Billy Wall said workers in the sector had worked hard during the public health emergency to keep construction sites open and working - and that the 2.7% increase was the least they deserved.

In a statement MEBSCA and the CIF said: "MEBSCA asks that unions reconsider its proposal to defer the 2.7% wage increase until March 2021, or until a new sectoral employment order is in place, whichever comes first.

"A new SEO would ensure that MEBSCA members could compete on a level playing field by ensuring that the 2.7% increase applies to all working in the sector.

"The reality is that MEBSCA companies face a very challenging environment in terms of Covid, economic contraction and reducing work pipeline and paying this wage threatens their viability by placing them at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis companies not covered by the existing agreement.

"The existing wage agreement was made in 2018 and does not reflect the unpredictable and significant costs of Covid-19.

"With a new SEO in place, MEBSCA members will have the capacity to pay the 2.7% wage increase and be better placed to maintain invest in their business and sustain employment."