Striking engineers in the test area of Rolls Royce’s Bristol plant returned to work on Tuesday after a mammoth battle which has seen them take six weeks of action to stop the victimisation of their convenor, Jerry Hicks.
They shared a mixture of pride and deep sadness. Pride at the solidarity they had shown, but sadness that they had not managed to win Jerry’s reinstatement.
His sacking is a major blow to union organisation not just at Bristol, but across Rolls Royce, the engineering industry and beyond.
The fight at Rolls holds significant lessons for every activist in both its strengths and why it was not ultimately able to break through.
The workers were up against a ruthless company which, it became clear early on, had decided to sack an effective union convenor months ago and had set aside a large amount of money to do so.
It was only able to act against Jerry, who is also a member of the Amicus union’s national executive, and head off solidarity action across the company thanks to the anti-union laws, which came in for a hammering, verbally, at the TUC this week.
But still the move to sack Jerry was met with a nine-day unofficial walkout by the 94 workers in his own section and two walkouts across the Bristol plant.
That delayed the victimisation, but once Jerry was sacked it became clear it would take the full backing of the national union, which would only come through official action, to win reinstatement.
And the backing that came was less than full. It did not come anywhere near the test area workers own fighting spirit and was far short of what was needed to win.
That was amply demonstrated on Monday of this week. On that day a mass meeting of test area workers discussed a return to work agreement and, characteristically, voted to donate £1,000 to the sacked Gate Gourmet workers even though they had themselves lost a month and a half’s wages.
On the same day the issue of the anti-union laws, vicitimisation of workplace reps and the lack of employment rights in New Labour Britain dominated the TUC.
Many unions spoke, including the T&G, which raised the Gate Gourmet case, and Unison, which highlighted the victimisation of two of its branch officers in Sefton on Merseyside.
Amicus did not speak, spurning the opportunity to highlight a crucial victimisation case and to pay tribute to the only group of workers on infinite strike in Britain.
From the announcement of Jerry’s victimisation and throughout the course of the dispute, Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson did not set foot in Bristol.
At a lunchtime fringe meeting at the TUC Simpson did not mention the Rolls Royce case and instead spoke exclusively about plans for a merger with the T&G and GMB unions.
It was left to PCS union leader Mark Serwotka, speaking at the same meeting, to say that the test of any merger would be “if it gave more support to, for example, Jerry Hicks at Rolls Royce”.
The failure of Amicus to give full backing to Jerry and the test area workers was decisive in the battle stalling at a mass meeting of the whole Bristol manual workforce on Thursday of last week.
This was the fourth time the workforce had been asked if they wanted to ballot for strike action. At three previous mass meetings the answer had been an overwhelming yes.
This time the decision was not taken at a mass meeting, but in a workplace ballot where the constant delay in acting on the previous votes fed into a lack of confidence.
Workers say confidence was further knocked when Ian Waddel, Amicus’s national officer for aerospace, gave a “report”, which, says one, “Relayed all the company’s threats without answering them.
“He said that the company said it might close Bristol, but he didn’t expose that as a bluff. He said the ballot was for one day strikes but that the company could lock us out, and he left it at that. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
Waddel also said he was not sure there would be support for spreading the action to other Rolls plants, but he had not been to mass meetings in those plants which indicated strong support.
The result was that while 212 voted to ballot for action, 326 voted against. The closeness of the vote shows that a confident lead from the national union would have delivered a yes vote.
With the forward momentum, which they had developed, now broken, the test area workers felt no option to but to seek a settlement with the company.
That return to work agreement protects not just them, but everyone in the rest of the factory who took unofficial action at the start of the dispute. In it Rolls Royce implicitly admits that management targeted the union in Bristol.
It extends protection for shop stewards and convenors. A gesture payment of two weeks wages to clear the backlogue will be made to the test area workers.
It agrees to pay Jerry until March of next year and a £100,000 lump sum. Jerry and the test area workers never asked for a payoff but had fought for the principle of reinstatement.
Rolls Royce had initially offered £50,000 as a “final settlement” and then doubled it as the strike went on.
In the course of the battle three new stewards were elected in the test area and the workers feel emboldened by how they conducted the struggle.
But there is no getting away from the fact that the victimisation of not only a convenor, but someone who topped the poll for that section of the union’s national executive, is a serious blow.
It will be an important battle to maintain the traditions of solidarity built up in the test area and to extend them to the rest of the plant, across Rolls Royce and to the rest of the industry.
The need to establish those networks is an urgent lesson for every trade union member. As at Gate Gourmet, the early days of this dispute gave more than a glimpse of the kind of solidarity action that can beat even ruthless employers.
“I have a heavy heart, but my heart is far from broken,” Jerry told Socialist Worker. “Along with the workers in the test area I feel strengthened by the resistance we have put up.
“The campaign to end the anti-union laws has to be serious. I want to use what has happened to me to front the contribution of Amicus to that campaign.”