Workers at a Rolls Royce site in Barnoldswick (Lancashire) began an initial three weeks of rolling strikes on 6 November, to resist the loss of 350 jobs. The strikes have now been extended to 23 December. Unite organiser Ross Quinn spoke to Daniel Randall about the dispute.
DR: How's the strike going so far?
RQ: It's going really well. We've targeted specific areas in the factory. That's something we did at Camell Laird [shipbuilder] two years ago, where there was only ever 20% of the workforce on strike at any one time, but no production was going on. We've used the same overall principle here.
The shop stewards know their workplace better than anyone, and they developed that idea of targeting specific areas to have the maximum impact on the employer whilst having the minimum impact on members. When shifts are changing over, people are coming out of work saying “nothing's moving at all”, and yet 80% of people are in work and being paid.
Spirits are really high. The members have got to a position where they feel a line has been crossed, and they're willing to do whatever it takes to either force the company to reverse its decision, or put other work into the factory to maintain employment at least to the level it's at now.
In a period where strikes of any kind are rare, and when many of those that do happen are token actions for one or two days, this creative approach to tactics feels quite innovative. Could you say a bit more on how the campaign developed and how the strategy was drawn up at shop floor level?
Because of the collapse of engine flying hours due to the pandemic, Rolls Royce had announced redundancies. A lot of people actually volunteered for redundancy because of the good packages that were in place, but the company said there was still 50 jobs at risk of compulsory redundancy. The shop stewards drew a line over that, and got the buy-in from the shop floor to propose a shorter working week to maintain those 50 jobs. Whilst they were in negotiations over that, the bosses announced they were transferring 350 jobs to Singapore. The reps and members felt betrayed at that point. They were in negotiations with people who knew there were far more potential job losses coming than the 50 being talked about.
At the beginning of the dispute at Cammell Laird two years ago, I'd told the workers there they needed to take inspiration from workers at Rolls Royce. What I was referring to then was the well-organised strike fund members have at Rolls Royce, which every member pays into on top of their regular union dues. A few years ago, there was a ballot at one of the most profitable plants in a dispute over pensions, and Rolls Royce backed down, because they knew the workers would have been able to finance sustained strikes, and they couldn't afford to lose the work from that plant. So when I stood in front of workers at Cammell Laird, where the company was planning to make half the workforce redundant, I told them they didn't have to accept it as inevitable, and could take inspiration from that strength and organisation that had made Rolls Royce back down over pension reform. What forced that climbdown wasn't the threat of a protest, but the threat of targeted strikes, sustained by a strike fund, that would have really hurt the company. The thing to take inspiration from was planning for whatever action it takes to win.
There were no compulsory redundancies at Cammell Laird, there are more people employed there now than before the dispute, and the apprenticeship scheme has been restarted. The workers who occupied the shipyard at Harland and Wolff in Belfast told us that they'd been inspired by Cammell Laird. So when the dispute kicked off here, we had a consultative ballot and mass meetings amongst Rolls Royce workers, and I told the same story – that two years ago, I'd been in the same position, standing in front of a group of workers telling them to take inspiration from the organisation of workers at Rolls Royce, and now it had come full circle. I told them about Cammell Laird, I told them about Harland and Wolff, and told the Rolls Royce workers they needed to draw inspiration from those struggles.
The convenor and shop stewards they've got are outstanding. They're well connected, they've done a lot of hard work to try and change the company's position. But ultimately we have to have the mindset of doing whatever it takes to win. Every member of the union in the workplace has to take responsibility for the campaign and look at what they're bringing to the table and how we can turn it round. If we do all of that and lose, because we could still lose, then everyone can look themselves in the mirror and say that at least we didn't go down without a fight.
But we are aiming to win, and then these workers could find themselves in the position of some workers I know at Cammell Laird, where their own children are now working on apprenticeship schemes at the site, which are jobs that were won because the parents went on strike.
So when it came to planning the strike here, the shop stewards just looked at how the company was structured and thought about what would have the most impact. So for the first three weeks of action, we're taking those key groups of workers in key sections out. We had loads of threatening legal letters from the company, basically complaining about what we're doing and they way we're doing it. That just confirmed what we know, that this was really going to hurt them. We see those threats as a compliment. We've responded to the employer's legal threats by naming more action. There'll now be strikes right through until Christmas Eve, and a picket line every day between 6 November and 23 December.
This strike is not a protest. It's not about taking tokenistic action to say we don't like what the company is doing, it's about forcing them to change their decision. And the only way we're going to do that is by putting the maximum pressure on the employer.
This dispute takes place in the context of a wider package of 9,000 job cuts Rolls Royce is planning. How does this fit into the union's overall strategy, and is the hope this strike will light a beacon for Rolls Royce workers in other areas of the business to fight back?
At the moment, all our focus is on winning this strike. But there is a wider dimension, which extends beyond Rolls Royce workers. It's about understanding that, whenever there's an economic crisis, employers will use that as a pretext to cut jobs or drive down conditions, and a lot of the time they do that without much resistance and get away with murder. There are a lot of attacks happening that could be stopped.
If this strike is successful, of course we hope it inspires workers in all workplaces, not just Rolls Royce, to see that there is an alternative to just accepting redundancies.
The legacy of the Lucas Plan seems to have a real relevance to this dispute. It's the same industry, and you already mentioned that part of the union's position is to demand the employer finds additional sources of work to keep people employed, so there's obviously already a consciousness around the need for alternative production. Is that kind of approach - workers' plans for repurposing production – part of the union's thinking? Especially in the context of the climate crisis, this seems a really key opportunity to not just have those discussions in the abstract, but to link them to a live struggle.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, in the aerospace sector in the north west we've been organising Zoom meetings with the shop stewards, where those questions were being put. One thing that was evident early on is that there were aerospace companies involved in “Ventilator Challenge UK”, a government scheme to reorient manufacturing capacity towards producing badly-needed ventilator equipment for hospitals. That's a clear example of how easy it is for these companies to diversify. They've already got all the skills and equipment.
We were speaking to shop stewards about that, and we were developing plans. We put out a report on behalf of the north west aerospace sector within the union, we engaged politicians around that, and were pushing on those issues, talking about diversification. But there's still that magic question of how you get from that to actually making those plans a reality. And then being faced with an attack like the one at Barnoldswick, due to anti-union legislation it took two to three months just to get to where we are today, having to jump through all the necessary hoops in terms of organising the ballot, so there are still big challenges in terms of how you turn a defensive struggle into something that's about changing the way production is organised.
But the shop stewards here were involved in those discussions, as they're part of the sector. This is all part of wider discussions about a the “new industrial revolution”, potential automation and so on... these things are going on anyway, people are already talking about the meaning of a “just transition”, so surely this is the perfect opportunity to try and develop that approach. There's a long way to go – we've found that once you start speaking to people outside the shop stewards' network, they're often simply not on the same page, so there's definitely work that needs to be done to take this forward.
You've mentioned legal threats you've faced, and the difficulties posed by the anti-union laws. Unite is pursuing what seems a very important legal challenge around the right to picket during lockdown, following police obstruction of a bus factory workers' picket in Leeds. How have you found the experience of striking and picketing during lockdown? Have you faced any police obstruction?
We haven't had any police obstruction here. We're obviously aware of what happened in Leeds, which took place the day before our strike started. By law we're only allowed six people on the picket line, and we've been making sure distancing is maintained. We have asked supporters from other workplaces and unions not to visit the physical picket line, but on 12 November we organised a virtual picket on Zoom via the union's local activist committee, which we then projected onto a screen at the physical picket, so the strikers could feel that wider support. Of course there are challenges, but that was a good way of communicating the solidarity.
This isn't a dispute that will be resolved by taking the odd day's action, we're going to have to dig in, so those expressions of solidarity will be hugely important for keeping morale up.
What can workers elsewhere in the labour movement do to support the strike?
Because it's a well-organised and well-financed branch, the strike fund is relatively healthy. In fact workers have been making donations from that to local food banks. However, as the strike goes on, donations to the strike fund may become more needed, and there are costs associated with the picket line day to day. If people want to make donations, cheques are payable to “Unite NW0062”.
We're constantly thinking of different ways of building support, of keeping the strike in the public eye, and keeping that wider pressure on the company. A lot of that wider support activity costs money, so donations will certainly help with that.
We have two social media hashtags, #BattleForBarnoldswick and #SaveOurSite. We encourage supporters to record a short video message, maybe just 20-30 seconds, and post it with those hashtags and tags in any of the Unite social media, such as @unitetheunion and @unite_northwest on Twitter. We'll be collating those videos and projecting them on the picket line, so members can see that they are supported and they're not on their own. We've been getting messages of support from all over the world, and that really does make a difference, when people see there is a lot of people on their side. We've got a way to go yet, so all messages of support and solidarity are appreciated.