Around 1,000 workers at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Telford, Shropshire, downed tools on Tuesday of last week to join a demonstration amid fears that the government is about to slash their jobs.
Streets around the base in Donnington were filled with workers who repair army vehicles and operate MoD warehouses.
They are enraged by government plans to savage workers’ conditions so that it will be cheaper to sack them.
The government says that it wants to reduce the value of its compensation scheme—cutting the amount it pays to civil servants who are made redundant.
But the scale of resistance to the plan has surprised even those who organised it—and is a model for all those who want to resist cuts and sackings.
“The bosses’ slogan seems to be sack three for the price of one, but we’re not standing for it,” march organiser and Unite union convenor, Brett Davis, told Socialist Worker.
“In the past people who work here have accepted lower pay rates than those in private industry because pensions were decent and, if there were redundancies, the terms were reasonable.
“The feeling was, if you were unlucky and lost your job, at least you would get enough to pay off your mortgage.
“But if the Tories get their way that’s all going to go.
“Now if you lose your job, the chances are you’ll lose your house too. What’s more, everyone knows that large scale redundancies are in the pipeline.”
Brett says people at Donnington are worried but angry—and that union activists from both the logistics and repair organisations on the site are determined that there will be a fight over the issue.
“All the shop stewards here were united in feeling that we should make our fight part of a general battle against the Tory cuts,” said Brett.
“So, right from the beginning of the campaign we explained to people that we don’t need to slash spending. The government is doing this for ideological reasons.
“We organised dozens of meetings with our members to win the argument for action.
“Representatives of manual workers, like myself, deliberately went into white collar sections in a bid to undercut any divisions—people in overalls don’t regularly mix with clerical workers.
“At the meetings some workers argued that cuts are inevitable because of the economic crisis.
“We replied saying that after the Second World War Britain’s economy was wrecked but we still managed to create the NHS, introduce comprehensive education and nationalise industries.
“Our newsletters quoted arguments and statistics we’d read in Socialist Worker—like the one that shows the pensions deficit could easily be met by making the rich pay their share.
“We tried to give people a sense of being part of a bigger battle.
“We made a point of mentioning the demonstration outside the Tory party conference in Birmingham on 3 October.”
Brett says that the feedback from the meetings was great, but that on the day of the protest he was still unsure how many workers would turn out.
“I was really nervous and would have been over the moon if just 500 out of the 1,200 who work at the base joined the march,” he said.
“But in the end there were about 1,000, and all the stewards were high as kites.
“The workers were really surprised at themselves. Some looked at each other and said, ‘I didn’t realise you were coming out too.’
“We were on the front page of our local newspaper. Before the march I was interviewed on the local radio.
“Stewards sent round a text telling everyone when I was going to be on, and in many sections people stopped work to listen.”
The march has built confidence among workers at Donnington that they can fight back. And Brett says that its message is already spreading beyond the base into Telford.
Civil servants, local government workers and teachers all organised their own meetings to coincide with the defence workers’ action.
The battle in Shropshire is also creating ripples nationally.
Stewards from Donnington travelled to London last week to join a lobby of parliament organised by the Unite, Prospect, GMB and FDA unions and found that lots of people had heard about their march.
“Speakers, including Jack Dromey MP, made reference to the events at Donnington,” said Brett.
“Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail waved our local paper around—with its headline of ‘Protesters hit the streets’—saying this was the kind of action we need.
“When I got up to speak I told people that no one group of workers, no matter how well organised, can beat the government all on their own.
“If we are going to win, we’ve got to support each other and spread the spirit of resistance.
“We need to connect up all the battles against cuts, and that’s why the demonstration against the Tories is so important.
“It’s why the stewards are going to do meetings next week saying that the next step in our campaign is going to be in Birmingham and that everyone should come on the protest.
“I can’t say that everyone in the national leadership of the union is happy with that.
“But we’ve been invited to bases in Salisbury and Southampton to explain how we built our protest and to advise stewards on how to plan their own action against the cuts.”