report and photos by David Broder
A picket of the BMW-owned Mini factory in Cowley, near Oxford, was called for six o’clock this morning in response to last week’s sudden laying-off of 850 agency staff. The workers were informed that they had lost their jobs just one hour before the end of their last shift – provoking outrage at both management and the UNITE union, who colluded in keeping the affair a secret for the last three weeks. This sleight of hand was a blatant effort to stop workers effectively reacting to their redundancy, for example by occupying the plant as some workers suggested.
Today’s protest received a small degree of media coverage, after the widespread circulation last week of a video of workers confronting the union officials who had sold them down the river, such as site convenor Bernard Moss who told the Oxford Mail : “The problem we had was that we were under clear instruction we could not give out any information until the company said so. That caused a lot of concern from the workforce over the last couple of weeks. Although we are a trade union, we are employed by the company. If they give out an instruction, it would be a brave person to defy that. These days not many people would support a shop steward if he was sacked.” Clearly Moss has none too great an idea of the word ‘solidarity’ or the actual purpose of a trade union.
However, given the level of militancy and anger shown when the lay-offs were announced, the calls for the demonstration on various websites and the fact that six workers from the Cowley Mini plant had (apparently) last week asked the Trades Council to support the picket, the turnout was very disappointing. Only three or four of the thirty people who turned out and leafleted employees driving into the factory were actually former Mini workers, and most of those in attendance were from socialist or anarchist groups.
It seems quite possible that further job cuts are to come in Mini – even though Mini sales are not falling – and the parlous state of the British car industry, after recent disasters for Nissan (Sunderland) and Honda (Swindon) workers, may well worsen. Indeed, at the picket I spoke to a worker from the Ford Transit van factory in Southampton, who said that at his workplace in October UNITE had secretly encouraged the workers to mount one and two-hour ‘wildcat’ actions (i.e. to avoid being seen to break the anti-union laws) to protest against the one-month closure of the plant, and roused some attention in the local press albeit not really inspiring much hope that a fightback is possible. He saw the best way forward as more common work between different groups of car workers, including a joint contingent on the demo against the G20 in April, as advocated by the National Shop Stewards Network.
Perhaps in broader terms there is some possibility of a fight back – workers will not just be trampled on, and the anti-union laws seem a little less frightening now, after they were ignored by the oil refinery strikers. And even as the worldwide car industry flounders, workers in Osnabrueck, Germany are mounting wildcat strikes to resist job cuts: a comrade wrote to us this morning, explaining:
“Karmann in Osnabrueck manufactures convertibles (1,400 workers) and roof-systems (1,100 workers), for example for Mercedes, Audi and Renault. For some time it was clear that there will be job cuts in one of the production departments (paint-shop, metal parts). Workers accepted wage cuts and workers in the other departments (convertible roof parts) are supposed to repay a 30 million Euro credit the company ‘needed’ to keep up production. On 19th of February 2009 the media announced that 1,400 workers will lose their jobs by May 2009, there will be no compensation/severance pay – which was a usual way in the past to sweeten redundancies, workers in bigger companies received up to 100,000 Euro. On 21st of February workers went on a wildcat strike. It is not clear whether the 1,100 employees in the roof-system department keep on working or not. Another example of delayed workers response, too late in order to build up enough pressure?”
We will try and keep our readers informed about developments in this particular strike, and indeed whether the campaign UNITE announced today to oppose lay-offs at car parts giant GKN in the West Midlands will lead to any meaningful action. All but 90 of Mini’s agency workers are now jobless, and their very limited hope of hanging on is now surely gone: so will the unions lift a finger to save anyone else?