“If our unions fight back when bosses announce redundancies, then we’ve got a chance to save jobs. But if we’re told to quietly walk away, then we’re all done for.”
That is the message from Doug Foreshew, who worked at BMW’s plant in Cowley, Oxfordshire, for nearly five years until he was sacked last week.
Like 850 of his co-workers who this week joined him on the dole, Doug was on an agency contract. He was given just one hour’s notice of his dismissal.
After receiving a calculation of his total benefits, Doug has worked out that after all his outgoings his family of four will be forced to live on just £50 a month.
Doug is furious with BMW. The company is threatening further redundancies – despite making profits and running its Mini car production line in Cowley at near maximum capacity.
But he is also angry with his union. “If a single union official, or even a shop steward, had stood up at the meeting where we were told we were sacked and called for a sit-in, it could have been a very different story,” he told Socialist Worker. “We were all so angry. I feel sure we would have done it. But instead the union allowed us all to be marched off the site – and then told us there was nothing that could be done to stop the sackings.
“The fighters who led the trade union movement in the past would be turning in their graves at the sight of such a surrender.”
Doug has spent this week helping to leaflet workers at the Cowley plant who are threatened with further redundancies. His local trades council is planning a march and public meeting against the job cuts.
He hopes that by continuing to resist he can help others learn some lessons from the disastrous way the union responded to the first wave of sackings.
“My main message is that while you’re inside the plant, you still have power. You’ve got something that the bosses want – their machinery and your skills. BMW wants those who still have a job to train others on temporary contracts.
“If we’d had a sit-in on the production line when they sacked us, at the very least we could have won decent redundancy terms and money for retraining. And if a union means anything, it means being united. If we’d had the right leadership, temporary and permanent workers could have fought together.”
Everyone who is facing the sack should heed Doug’s message. This week van maker LDV announced that it is in deep financial trouble and could close.
Trade secretary Peter Mandelson has already washed his hands of the problem. He has refused any government money to help the struggling firm produce a new line of electric vehicles. Now at least 900 jobs are under threat.
Thousands of other workers face similar threats. There is anger everywhere at the way bosses have thrown people on the scrapheap – and the way the government continues to prioritise bankers over workers.
Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the Unite union, displayed righteous anger at the “humiliation” of workers at Cowley, but no more than that. He begged the government to provide funds for LDV, but to no avail.
This kind of response is completely inadequate. If we want to save jobs, we need a serious fight that involves industrial action. Trade union leaders should use their authority to win strike ballots and lead sit-ins.
But so far the opposite has been the case. At car maker Jaguar Land Rover, Unite officials are recommending a one-year pay freeze and a four-day week. This is in return for a commitment from the company that there will be no compulsory redundancies for two years.
Workers at the company’s sites, including Castle Bromwich, Coventry and Solihull in the West Midlands and Halewood on Merseyside, are set to vote on the offer next week.
“It’s a poor deal – and people here are bitter and angry about it,” one worker from the Coventry plant told Socialist Worker after attending a meeting of 800 workers from his plant.
“The mood is volatile and there’s a lot of frustration with the union as well. A number of us want to reject the offer and fight back against the company, but there is a real lack of confidence to do so.
“I want to know where the hell Tony Woodley is at. He’s trying to persuade us to give up our pay and conditions so that he can go cap in hand to Mandelson and ask for money for the company.
“What chance of success does that strategy have? The answer is none. Car firms are a tinderbox at the moment and any spark could set us off. I don’t know quite where that spark is going to come from, but I’m sure it will come.”
Article by Yuri Prasad