A major trial of strength which will affect the position of trade union reps across industry is underway at Rolls Royce’s Bristol plant where the convenor of one of the best organised sections, Jerry Hicks, faces disciplinary charges that could see him sacked.
Workers in his own section, the test areas, and across the Bristol plant are absolutely clear this is an attempt to victimise him and break union organisation.
That’s why they walked out on Thursday and attended a mass protest in work time this morning, when the disciplinary meeting started. That meeting has now been adjourned to Monday.
“We are clear that they want Jerry out of the plant,” says Amicus union steward John Smart. “They do not like the fact that Jerry is extremely effective in representing the members.
“Every decision that we take here is made by the members and is then represented by the stewards and convenors. Management are attacking Jerry because they want to be able to choose the workers’ representatives and get a pliant workforce.”
Jerry has worked at Rolls Royce for 30 years and is a highly respected trade unionist with a reputation for standing up for his members and offering support for other groups of workers. He was elected as deputy chair of the joint union committee at the Bristol site and won the highest vote in the aerospace sector in elections to Amicus’s national executive committee.
He is well known throughout Rolls Royce nationally, in the aerospace industry and among trade unionists across the south west of England.
The level of support for him meant that when he was suspended on Wednesday afternoon the test area walked out. It had been the scene of an important victory five weeks ago, when three days of unofficial strike action and an occupation defended two workers from being sacked (see Rolls Royce bosses in test of strength with workers, SW, 18 June).
The following morning a 600-strong mass meeting of dayshift workers throughout the plant heard the details of the threat to sack him and also spontaneously decided to walk out. The next shift, the link shift, followed suit after a 150-strong meeting. Then the night shift held one of its best attended meetings in recent years and also downed tools.
The protest outside the hearing on Friday morning saw not only solid support from within the Rolls Royce Bristol plant, but trade union reps from the fire brigade, teachers, lecturers, council workers, post office and railway.
Significantly, there were delegations from the nearby Airbus plant and from Smith’s industries, which has an engineering plant 45 miles away.
Mark Thomas, convenor at Airbus, said, “If they get away with doing this to Jerry, it will be a major setback for all trade unionists in the industry. That is why we are here to offer support. And we will be discussing what further steps to take should they become necessary.”
“Make no mistake about it,” said Robert Green, a Rolls Royce test areas worker, “This is a serious threat to break the union, as serious as any I’ve seen in 34 years here. We need to spread the word and win wider support.”
The test area refused to go to work for the rest of the day. Meanwhile an emergency meeting of Amicus union representatives from across Rolls Royce’s plants – at Coventry, Derby, Barnoldswick, East Kilbride and Glasgow – was meeting in Preston.
It agreed to support Bristol workers in their dispute, to put on a levy of union members across the company, to organise mass meetings at each site for Jerry to address and to reconvene the company-wide reps meeting in Bristol on Thursday of next week.
Many Bristol Rolls Royce workers told Socialist Worker that this should be treated as a national dispute, requiring national action.
Already, on Thursday, union reps at Rolls Royce’s Coventry plant had held a meeting and at Barnoldswick, Lancashire, had leafleted the workforce.
Ray Bazeley, the chair of the joint union committee at the Bristol site, told Socialist Worker, “We are being inundated with messages of support from as far afield as the Shorts plant in Belfast, to senior print union reps in London.
“There really is no case for Jerry to answer. He is charged with orchestrating unofficial action in a dispute over the sacking of two workers five weeks ago.
“All that Jerry did was represent members and communicate to management the democratic decisions members took at mass meetings. We are determined to defend this man and the union. We welcome support from across the trade union movement.”
An emergency meeting of the national aerospace committee of Amicus has been called for 27 July. Amicus nationally, in line with the anti-union laws, has repudiated the spontaneous walkouts in Bristol, but it has pledged support for Jerry against victimisation and is prepared to ballot for official industrial action.
The strong feeling from Bristol Rolls Royce workers today, however, was that if a popular and effective convenor is sacked on Monday, then it will be necessary to move much more quickly than the time it takes to organise a ballot.
“They want Jerry out because we are beginning to get a bit of confidence back and they don’t want that going into the new plant they are building on the site,” says Amicus steward Jon Locke.
“We are going to fight for him to stay – at work and in his elected positions – for exactly the same reason.”
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Socialist Worker will update this story on Monday