The announcement in August that Rolls-Royce was shipping 350 jobs at its Barnoldswick Trent engine blade factory to Singapore was a gut punch to both its workers and the town.
With a population of 11,000, Barnoldswick, in Lancashire, is a major beneficiary of the £1.1bn Rolls-Royce contributes to the North West’s economy every year. The company’s plans to transfer production abroad, would not just be devastating for its staff and their families, but the financial wellbeing of the townsfolk as a whole.
As well as a visceral sense of betrayal – Rolls-Royce promised in 2009 that the Singapore factory, which Barnoldswick staff helped set up, would not threaten Trent blade production in Lancashire – there is dismay that Rolls-Royce’s historic connection with Barnoldswick will be severed.
Barnoldswick fan blade polisher and Unite member Leo Platt recalled, “My grandfather worked at Rolls-Royce, he started in the 60s, my dad in the 80s and I joined in 2011. I’ve got three daughters myself and I would love to see them awarded the opportunity to work at Rolls-Royce and get the education that’s there for them – and to carry on our family’s tradition working there.”
Rolls-Royce first came to Barnoldswick in 1943, after the Luftwaffe repeatedly bombed its Solihull factory, where engines for the famous Spitfire were made. To make Spitfire production less accessible to German bombers, a new factory was set up at Rover’s gas turbine assembly plant in Barnoldswick.
It was also in Barnoldswick that Rolls-Royce developed and built the Whittle jet engine, which was responsible for powering Meteor jet fighters in the last two years of the war. The Meteor was the only allied jet fighter to see action during the Second World War and played an important role in beating back Hitler’s forces.
After the war ended, Rolls-Royce stayed in the town, going on to design and produce engines that revolutionised aviation in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Plane spotters the world over knew the RB in an “RB199” or “RB211” engine stood for Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick.
During the 1940s, it was impossible not to notice these engines roaring away on special outdoor test beds, said Barnoldswick History Society member David Steele.
“They basically ran the engines to destruction to find out what was wrong with them. Modify, improve and test it again until they got everything spot on. When they were running, you could hear them all over Barnoldswick.”
It is a memory still vivid for Pendle Borough Councillor David Whipp, who recalled that when he “was a little boy, the house used to shake with the vibration from the test beds.”
As Rolls-Royce technology developed over the next decades, work at Barnoldswick changed to focus on turbine blade manufacturing. As a result, a whole aerospace ecosystem linked to the company’s Barnoldswick operations sprang up across the region.
Whipp explained, “Pendle is a borough of small to medium enterprises, SMEs around 3,000 – many here because of Rolls-Royce. The expertise has built up over the generations leading to the skills being put to other uses, as well as in the supply chain. We now risk losing that impetus, that enterprise, from the whole of Pendle and beyond. That’s a very worrying prospect.”
It’s impossible to deny that the pandemic has had an impact on Rolls-Royce. Prior to the announcement in August, Unite reps at Barnoldswick were working on proposals to introduce short time working to save jobs at no cost to the employer. The outsourcing of 350 jobs, however, will mean that just 150 workers will be left in the town – with many fearing that they will also go at a later date.
Unite convenor Mark Porter said staff can accept Rolls-Royce consolidating its two Barnoldswick sites into one facility, but cannot accept shipping work abroad.
“We understand there the pandemic has reduced flying, and reduced the need for original equipment engines in the short term, but this is the company making a strategic choice to ship what work there is from Barnoldswick, to Singapore –which I believe is a big risk to the company,” said Porter.
“I think Rolls-Royce should retain wide chord fan blade production in Barnoldswick. I think there ought to be investment in new developments and I think that as a country we should be saying to Rolls-Royce, no, you cannot sell off the crown jewels to Singapore. They have to remain as an integral part of the future of our nation and the future, as far as I’m concerned of our town.”
The strength of feeling was such that, for the first time since 1979, Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick workers began targeted strike action on November 6. The striking workers received an outpouring of local and national support and both Labour and Tory MPs have condemned Rolls-Royce’s plans.
The company has been particularly criticised for securing £1bn in taxpayer funds to cushion against the pandemic’s economic impacts, even as it pushes through plans to offshore crucial UK manufacturing jobs.
In late November, Rolls-Royce told staff that the factory will close until after Christmas and that work currently undertaken at Barnoldswick will be immediately transferred to Japan, Singapore and Spain.
“Rolls-Royce actions are totally unacceptable,” commented Unite national officer Rhys McCarthy. “At a time when they should be entering into negotiations, they have instead locked workers out and moved work abroad.
“It’s vitally important that the government and MPs make it entirely clear to Rolls-Royce that its actions are deplorable and should be reversed immediately,” continued McCarthy.
“Since Rolls-Royce first announced its intentions, Unite has been crystal clear that it was fully prepared to negotiate to secure the future of Barnoldswick and this still remains the case.”
As we go to press the Battle for Barnoldswick continues.
By Ryan Fletcher
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list