For hundreds of workers at the BMW Mini plant in Cowley, just outside of Oxford, today (April 19) was their first ever day of strike action after working loyally for the same company for decades.
But the automaker, whose Mini is among its iconic brands, has for the workforce gone a step too far as it seeks to rob them of their pensions.
BMW has said that it will be closing its final salary pension scheme on May 31 – without having had any meaningful talks with the workforce.
The proposals will mean that some workers could lose up to £160,000 of their retirement income, explains Unite BMW plant convenor Norman Gough (pictured below).
“There’re many people here who have worked here many, many years and have contributed to the pensions scheme throughout,” he told UNITElive. “They’re looking forward to a reasonable retirement – not a retirement where they flash loads of money about – just a reasonable one that enables them to pay the bills. But the company is taking that away from them.”
Poverty has become a very real prospect for these workers, Norman says.
“We know that if the Conservatives win this next election, they’ll likely take away the triple lock on state pensions as we go forward – this is what we’re up against.”
Unite deputy plant convenor Steve Sargent, 60, is among those who may be robbed of tens of thousands of pounds from his pensions when he retires in five years. He’s been paying into the pension since 2001, when he first started working for BMW helping make the Mini.
But there’s way more at stake then just any one individual’s pension pot, Steve (pictured below) notes.
“I worry about how the company is unequivocally refusing to listen to the trade union on such an important topic as pensions,” he explained. “If we don’t win this fight, then they’ll come back and attack our pay, terms and conditions – this is only the beginning.”
Norman agrees and hits back at BMW’s contention that the pension scheme is unaffordable.
“They made record profits in 2016 of €6.9bn,” he explained. “They’ve increased the shareholders dividends by 8 per cent.
“It’s a sad day but we’ve had to do it – at the end of the day no one actually wants to go on strike,” he added. “But we’ve been driven to this by BMW. They won’t listen to us; they won’t negotiate properly. All they talk about is what they want. They flatly refuse to listen to us.”
Norman begged the company to see sense – to at the very least have meaningful discussions where their voices are heard – but warned that the resolve of the workforce is as strong as ever.
“We have five actions coming up and we are prepared to ramp up action beyond that too.”
Ultimately, Norman says the dispute is about fairness and about respect.
“These workers build one of the company’s most iconic and profitable products – the success of the company depends on them,” he said.
“Their work is top quality and they have been through the years incredibly flexible,” Norman said. “They deserve what they’ve been paying into their whole working lives. It shouldn’t be suddenly stripped away from them especially as many are just now coming up for retirement.”
Steven today had to fill the role of ‘picket supervisor’ — a new requirement imposed by provisions in the Tory government’s Trade Union Act, which came into force last month.
This is one of the first strikes after the new provisions – which were designed to restrict trade union activity – have come into effect.
“We had to go to the police station, hunt the police down, give our details to the police,” Steve explained. “We had to have training for all those who were leading pickets so that they understand the law.
“They’re now required to be very polite, to not upset anyone. Of course, no one wants to go back to the days of sometimes violent pickets, but the law is a step too far,” he noted. “It’s really put some absurd constraints on us that simply aren’t necessary.”
Still, it seemed nothing could dampen the good-humoured but steely resolve of the hundreds of workers out on strike today in Cowley, joined by their colleagues at other BMW sites in Swindon and Hams Hall.
“A lot of people here never dreamt they’d ever be on strike with a company which makes such huge profits and typically gives very fair pay deals,” Steve said.
“Going from that situation to one where the company isn’t talking to the trade union at all is shocking for many. But that it’s the very first strike for many of the workers here – there’s an element of excitement, of wonderment and camaraderie.”
Unite member and BMW worker Daniel Toro (pictured above) is among those striking for the first time, and the camaraderie Steve describes is for him palpable.
Daniel is not on the pension scheme now threatened with closure, but he believes deeply in the solidarity that’s brought out hundreds of workers to the picket lines in today’s strike.
“I’m here to support my brothers and sisters,” he said.
- Pics by Mark Thomas