By Ian McKendrick and Charlie Kimber
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Oxford Mini strike shows appetite to fight over pay

A strike forced bosses to make a serious offer — but almost half of the workers thought they could have won more and wanted to keep striking
Issue 2807
BMW Mini workers on the picket line, one wears a high vis vest, two others wave red Unite union flags

Oxford Mini workers on the picket line (Picture: Shaun Doherty)

The recent strike by Rudolph & Hellman workers at the Oxford Mini plant has shown how some sections of workers want to see a real fight over pay and other issues.

A single strike day forced the company grudgingly into a new and much more serious pay offer. Bosses put forward an increase of 19 percent over two years plus a 2 percent bonus. Unite union general secretary Sharon Graham said it was “a brilliant win”.

Certainly that figure is far more than most people are getting at the moment. It almost matches the present RPI rate of inflation. When workers started the pay campaign, day shift workers were on £10.30 per hour, equating to £20,888 a year. This will increase to £24,336 immediately and then to £24,944 from 1 January 2023.

But the account on the national Unite website doesn’t tell you that the deal was only very narrowly accepted—by 111 votes to 102. Nearly half of the workers thought they could have won more and wanted to keep striking.

The local union newsletter to members does include the ballot figures. It says, “This result is enough to settle some of the pay issues. But Unite recognises this result leaves a large number of members feeling that the company could have done better.”

Why was it close? Like many deals, the headline figure did not apply to everyone. One department where there is no union rep is less organised, and bosses offered them less. But the issues that sparked most anger were the lack of sick pay and probationary pay rates which mean that workers are paid £1 an hour less than the usual rate.

The local union says, “Workers must now continue the fight for an improvement to probationary rates, as this practice creates a two-tier workforce that divides workers whilst providing the company with cheap labour and bigger profits.”

The pay campaign was hard fought. One leading union rep told Socialist Worker, “From day one the company pleaded poverty and gave no less than four ‘final’ offers—five if you include the final settlement.

“At every turn the company used anti-union tactics like trying to discredit the union subscription rates, telling workers they don’t need a third party to speak for them and using an overtime blacklist for those workers who struck.

“On top of this the company regularly circulated internal communications to workers stating the union had agreed to terms or offers made. The reality was the union and its reps hadn’t agreed anything and was steadfast in the position of delivering on an inflation-busting pay rise to keep up with the cost of living crisis.”

Unite officer Scott Kemp and organiser Lewis Norton engaged in an 18-month campaign at the Oxford Cowley Mini plant. It focused on Rudolph & Hellmann to stem the race to the bottom and re-establish a trade union culture within the contracted workforce.

Membership grew by 130 percent and the shop stewards have doubled following the dispute. Action is the way to fight to defend working class living conditions. And the battle has to continue until there are genuine gains.

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