520 workers at the Rolls Royce factory in Barnoldswick, Lancashire have voted for 3 weeks strike action against planned redundancies and possible site closure. The 500 jobs at Barnoldswick are some of the last high-quality manufacturing jobs left in East Lancashire. I interviewed Ross Quinn, the Unite officer responsible for the site and the aerospace industry across the north-west.
Ross explained that Rolls Royce have been in Barnoldswick since 1943 when it as set up as part of the war effort. At the end of the war Britain was still a significant player in the new industry of jet engines along with the US and Germany. In 2018 the factory employed 1140 staff, this was gradually reduced through voluntary redundancies to the 520 who work there today.
Rolls Royce is important to the town and community of Barnoldswick, which is in the borough of Pendle that has a child poverty rate of 37%. As Ross put it: “Skilled jobs are few and far between. The company a few years ago boasted that they brought £1.1 billion into the regional economy with wages, supply chain, investment and taxes – imagine the effect if all that just disappeared”.
In 2009 the company opened a plant in Singapore and asked the Barnoldswick workers to train the Singapore workforce. At that time they pledged that Singapore would only ever be support for production at Barnoldswick. Now the plan is to transfer production there.
At the start of the pandemic there were 700 workers but as the work dried up as a result of the virtual closure of the aerospace industry another 150 workers were given redundancy. Then the company asked for more. The reps and members explored a shorter working week, diversification and a ‘just transition’ out of defence industries, referring back to the Lucas Plan of the 70s and the company seemed to be interested. Some links were made with government.
But then Rolls Royce announced another 50 redundancies and the transfer of production to Singapore. It was the last straw. It seemed as if the press knew before the workforce, who felt betrayed. The belief is that all the talk of re-tooling and diversification had been lip service only.
Unite at Barnoldswick has never accepted compulsory redundancies. They have a healthy strike fund and have balloted the whole workforce for strike action, which begins with 3 weeks of action by key departments. Then the final work inspectors come out on November 18th until Christmas Eve, with a level of support from the Unite strike fund.
Rolls Royce have had over £2 billion of government backed loans, hundreds of millions in furlough payments and yet they paid no UK corporation tax last year, and there is no accountability to their workers or wider society. Public ownership of the company now would protect jobs and could support diversification. Rolls Royce were nationalised – by a Tory government at that – in 1971 and remained in public hands till 1987. Instead of which they are being allowed by the government to up sticks and off-shore the work.
The workers have other ideas however.
All Unite members and trade unionists should support this action which has gone beyond pleas and hand wringing, to determined strike action. Send messages of support, or short videos to Ross Quinn, Preston Unite office, PR2 2YP or firstname.lastname@example.org.