Unity at Rolls

WORKERS at Rolls Royce aero-engine plants in East Kilbride and Coventry are continuing their weekly two-day strikes in defence of jobs and working conditions - and getting tremendous solidarity support in the form of a £2 a week levy from plants up and down the country.

Union convenors elsewhere are about to put in their wage claims for the current year and are expecting tough resistance from the company - not only in order to achieve a decent rise, but also to hold on to existing conditions.

At East Kilbride, where the main battle is in defence of 500 jobs at the research and development section, the workforce has been buoyed up by the help the levy has been providing. Owen Thomas, the MSF union chair, told me: “Rolls Royce cannot survive the damage the strike is causing - they are in an enormous panic. The question is how tough are they prepared to get - we are not about to give in.”

In Coventry, I spoke to Alan Wilkins, the senior convenor at the company’s Ansty aero-engine section, where the 350 shop-floor workers resumed after their seventh two-day strike. Here the dispute is over the horrendous conditions attached to the 1994 wage ‘offer’ - a pay cut for shift workers, because of the withdrawal of shift allowances. “The strikes are practically 100%,” Alan said. “Morale is high as a result of the levy, but we are definitely hoping for better coordination with all the other plants.”

At Derby’s civil engine section, AEEU convenor Tony McCandless said that the 4,200 workers had only just had their 1994 pay claim (for “a princely two percent”) paid after a successful two-week overtime ban. He does not think the members would settle for such a meagre sum this year - particularly in the light of the 27% the directors recently awarded themselves.

The Sunderland plant has a much smaller workforce of some 370, but, according to senior convenor Jim Clark, there is 100% participation in the voluntary levy: “We have a tradition of solidarity here - we supported the miners 100% from day one.”

He does not expect a positive response to their new pay claim: “Two and a half percent with strings is likely to be on the table,” he told me. “The company will try to claw back on terms and conditions, particularly on shift premiums and working hours. But the members are now angry enough to do something about it. After the minimum increases of the last few years, while the chairman gets a £60,000 bonus, people are fed up - they’ve had enough.”

Jim thinks that strike action is on the cards: “We could soon be polishing the cobbles.” He believes that workers will always have to struggle.

“It has nothing to do with Labour’s clause four. Rolls Royce was brought into state ownership by a Tory government without clause four, and we still faced attacks on jobs. We make gains through our own strength.”

Although, like convenors elsewhere, Jim says that plant by plant bargaining has been more beneficial than national negotiations would have been, he firmly supports national co-operation:

“The trade unions are well organised throughout the company - it only takes a phone call. When it comes to coordinating tactics, we have done it before and we can do it again. The biggest problem is the lads on the floor: persuading them that a short-term sacrifice will be worth it in the long run.”

Rolls Royce is coordinating its own attacks on the entire workforce. The sort of united response Jim Clark refers to should surely be escalated now.

Peter Manson