When workers at Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick first set out in September to save their jobs and their historic site then under threat, they knew the road would be a long and hard one. And there would be no guarantees of success.
Over the next four months the workers, Unite members, got together with their local community, mobilising a number of rallies which drew the attention of people across the UK and even around the world. The tiny town of Barnoldswick, home to 11,000 people and whose Rolls-Royce site is the birthplace of the jet engine, was placed squarely in the spotlight.
In October, the workforce overwhelmingly voted for strike action against management’s plans to halt production of wide-cord fan blades – a major function of the site — with the work set to be outsourced to Singapore. These plans meant that not only 350 jobs were at risk, but that the whole future of the site was thrown into doubt.
The workers downed tools in November, with the whole trade union movement and the nation behind them. As the local community came out in force for rallies to defend their livelihoods, their families and a proud history of engineering excellence stretching back more than half a century, Unite reps and officers worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring the company to the negotiating table.
This was no ordinary campaign. Dubbed the Battle for Barnoldwick, this was a fight for their lives.
‘More than we ever dared hope for’
And now, after nine weeks of strike action, their work and their courage has paid off, as workers today (January 14) overwhelmingly voted to accept a deal hammered out by Unite, which not only saves the jobs under threat but gives the Rolls-Royce site a new lease of life and a bright future.
“It’s almost 180 degrees that things have turned,” Unite regional officer Ross Quinn told UniteLIVE, praising the new deal. “It’s more than we could have even dared to hope for when we first went into the dispute.”
As part of the deal, there will be a two-year guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, with 350 jobs secured as the very minimum headcount. But beyond this, the deal secures a whole decade of guaranteed on-site manufacturing. A new Centre of Excellence training school will be established, to re-skill the current workforce and train future apprentices, engineers, and designers in advanced green technology skills of the future.
“Carbon capture, net zero, everything that’s related to tackling climate change will be explored in this Centre of Excellence,” Ross explained. “The opportunities here are endless – the manufacturing jobs that may be able to developed off the back of that are really special.”
Ross said that the whole workforce was ecstatic when they first learned of the deal.
“People are very emotional about it all because it took them from this position where the site was all but in name on the brink of suddenly disappearing to now having ten years of viable manufacturing being agreed.”
For Unite convenor Mark Porter, the abiding feeling among the workforce now is one of immense relief.
“It’s like a weight that’s been lifted off our shoulders,” he said.
Reflecting on the campaign, Mark said that the workforce was determined from day one, and the support they’ve had from the trade union movement nationally and internationally has been incredible.
“There was no one turning point in this campaign,” he explained. “It was all the different elements coming together. Collective strength, everyone from across the country coming together united, is what made the difference in this campaign.”
Mark noted how this victory isn’t just a win for individual workers and their jobs – it’s a victory for the entire Barnoldswick community.
“Rolls-Royce is one of the biggest employers in the area and certainly the biggest employer in Barnoldswick,” he explained. “These are well-paid, highly skilled, high-value manufacturing jobs. Rolls-Royce’s value to the local economy cannot be overstated – the multiplier effect means that every direct job supports between four and six jobs in the supply chain. We’ve all seen over the years what happens when large employers leave our communities – you only have to look at for example steel and how that’s affected Sheffield.”
“When you’ve got a site like the one in Barnoldswick, a town essentially is built up around it,” he said. “When you look back at that period when Rolls-Royce took over the site and developed it, so many people migrated to that area because of that development. The town wouldn’t be what is without Rolls-Royce. But it’s also a two-way street – Rolls-Royce wouldn’t be the success it has been over the years without the people, the workers and the community that’s made it successful.”
Both Ross and Mark said that the workforce and wider community were also driven to keep fighting to save Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick to preserve the town’s proud legacy.
‘Never any question about giving up’
“The fact that it was the birthplace of the jet engine and the contribution it also made in defeating the Nazis in the Second World War — that, as you can imagine, is quite emotional for people and it’s something that they were motivated to protect,” Ross said.
While momentum for the campaign never stopped building since it first started, there were difficult setbacks along the way. In late November, Rolls-Royce told staff that the factory would close until after Christmas and that work then being undertaken at Barnoldswick would be immediately transferred to Japan, Singapore and Spain.
This was in effect a lock-out of the workforce spelling trouble ahead – it was a taster of what might happen permanently if their action ended in defeat. Still, they never gave up.
“There was never any question about us ever giving up,” Mark said. “Obviously when you embark on any industrial action you’re embarking into the unknown. But the Barnoldswick workforce felt they had nothing to lose and they were absolutely resolute in their determination to fight for their livelihoods, their families and their community.”
Power of a union
Ross paid tribute to all the Barnoldswick Unite reps like Mark, as well as Unite officials such as Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner, whose relentless work made this victory possible.
“This is a great example of the power of a union,” he said. “For years, the reps that we have on site have done the day-in, day-out work of educating themselves, of taking part in Unite’s trade union education and even going on to do external education and get diplomas.
“When you get to a situation like this, all of those hours, days, weeks and years of work from the reps comes into play. When I as a regional officer first came into talk about this campaign with the reps, I was dealing with people who had spent their entire adult lives organising.
“I don’t think you can pull a campaign off of this magnitude in a workplace that doesn’t have that level of organisation. It’s a message for everybody that wherever you are at the moment, you need to organise and educate yourself. Because when you’re faced with a dispute like this you’re going to rely on every part of that education and organisation to win.”
The wider support from the trade union movement, Ross said, was also a vital ingredient in their success.
“That national and international support was phenomenal – from all the messages we got from people across the UK and around the world, it was apparent that our members at Barnoldswick and their fight had become a beacon of hope for people. This is truly a watershed moment – our campaign and our victory shows how people can fight back when their workplaces and jobs are under threat.”
“We couldn’t have done this deal without the support of Unite behind us,” he said. “It’s that simple. If anyone doubts the importance of a union in today’s workplace, then I would tell them to look at where we were in August when the announcement was first made and look at where we’ve got to now.”
You can find out more about the deal Unite has secured at Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick here.
By Hajera Blagg