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?
7 thoughts on “protest by bmw/mini workers at cowley”
Thanks for the report, and thanks to the comrade who wrote with news from Germany – it’s good to get an international perspective. A couple of things. One is, Moss might have a very good idea of the meaning of “solidarity”, and he might be absolutely right that there isn’t the mood there to defend shop stewards. Of course, that’s not an excuse for keeping workers in the dark, not least because there are always ways to leak things anonymously. And perhaps there’s a relation between stewards’ timidity and an unwillingness to defend them. But there’s no point in not acknowledging that relative workforce quiescence is a current reality, and that does put shop stewards in a difficult position.
Furthermore, at this stage, the question is not ‘will the unions lift a finger?’, but ‘what will workers do if/when they don’t?’
Yes, it is largely true that “the question is not ‘will the unions lift a finger?’, but ‘what will workers do if/when they don’t?’” in that any concerted action coming from the union tops is unlikely – I was posing the question in a (sort of) rhetorical way.
As regards Moss, I am very much inclined to take a negative/cynical stance. What I meant is that solidarity is a two-way street, and it’s a bit rich to make the comments he does when he has just colluded in keeping 850 – twenty percent – of his colleagues in the dark about their impending dismissal. What does he stand for/what use is he to his members if he behaves like that?
A question asked in the video.
Of course, if he “revealed” the truth in advance he may or may not have won support… but actually, I get the impression that this group of workers are quite strong and as I say, the immediacy of their laying-off very much seems designed to stop them doing anything. It is of course reality that most workers are relatively quiescent, but on his part the argument is simply circular, since he takes part in creating conditions which demobilise them.
Amazed to see this report here so quickly, I’d have gone back to bed if I’d come up from London!
Moss might have a very good idea of the meaning of “solidarity”, and he might be absolutely right that there isn’t the mood there to defend shop stewards.
No, UNITE have been a terrible union at that plant for years.
I first saw the video of this meeting on the SWP webb page and was not very impressed. It clearly fits in with this sects world view that sees all of the problems in the labour movement as having its origins in ‘bad leadership’, In this case that of a lay official of the union UNITE, when the problems to be confronted goes far deeper than that.
I was at the TradesCouncil meeting last week and it was local trade unionists and socialists together with some Cowley workers in attendance (informed of the meeting by local socialists who met them at Cowley plant & a nearby shopping centre).
In fact there were 60 people across 2 entrance gates today, several of whom were agency workers, the rest were trades council, socialists from various groups and university/Ruskin students.
What was proposed to the Trades Council, and by whom? All I heard (from a couple of people) was that six Mini workers went. On Andy Newman’s blog he says they called this “leafletting” and made clear it was not a “picket”, as it was advertised on much of the blogosphere, LibCom etc.
We went to both gates. I’m afraid to say I don’t think there were sixty across the two gates, there were probably [ed – I’m certain] – no more than twenty at either at any time, and of course a few people went back and forth between the two (e.g. both times we went back and forth we passed people I recognised from Trot circles).
The stewards role in this is inexcusable.What the f*ck happened to solidarity!!! But I have to say I wasnt surprised that hardly any of the 850 turned up to the picket. Watching the video made me think it is all too easy attacking the union and yet let the employer off scott free. In the video I thought the workers treatment of management was tame compared to how the workers treated the union.
Agency workers due to their employment status can be removed at a moments notice. My understanding is that these workers were given 3/4 weeks notice that they were finishing but only 1 hours notice about the week downtime which affected all workers on the site. Is this true? If it is then they were luckier than a lot of agency workers I know who have been removed at a minutes notice!!
The other thing to remember is that their employer is Manpower and not BMW. BMW gives the work to Manpower. All Manpower does is provide workers and makes alot of cash out of it. In the first instance these workers should be taking their anger out equally to Manpower. Is there going to be a picket/demonstration outside their offices?? There should be!!
These agency workers needed strong guidance from within their own ranks and I was surprised to find out that they hadnt their own shop steward. My understanding is that they were represented by a BMW steward and not their own Manpower shop steward.I believe that if they had had their own organisation the anger would have been channelled towards a sit down strike or occupation which would have had a huge effect.
The left has for far too long stood aside from the plight of agency workers. They are a difficult group of workers to organise but considering there are 1.4 million of them in the UK they cant be ignored. The left have to get their own people into the agencies to support these workers and they have to get people into companies like Manpower, WHO HAVE A UNION RECOGNITION AGREEMENT, and start organising. Maybe then the Unions will wake up and take notice when agency workers start to get militant.
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