Talk to anyone who’s taken strike action, and they’ll tell you that it’s always a last resort. After all, strikes aren’t just disruptive for employers – they often take a heavy emotional and financial toll on workers too, and there’s never any guarantee of success.
Indeed, no one takes the decision to down tools lightly — and this couldn’t be more true than for Unite member and Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick worker Andrew Evans, who took strike action for the first time in his life in November.
Andrew, who was born and bred in Barnoldswick, began working for Rolls-Royce nearly thirty years ago, when he started as an apprentice for the company in 1991. For many years, he’s worked in the aero-engines structures side of the company, presently known as SCAM, and he’s always felt a real sense of pride in his work and his employer.
“I’d been with this company since I left school. It’s all I’ve ever known, and the company on the whole had been good to us. Of course over the years we’ve had redundancies – and unfortunately sometimes compulsory redundancies — but for the most part they were usually not forced.”
‘It was like going into a big unknown’
So when management announced proposals in August to halt wide-cord fan blade production and outsource the work to Singapore, with the loss of 350 jobs, the news came as a shock.
Although Andrew did not work in the wide-cord fan blade side of the business, known as FBUK, and his job was not — at least then — under immediate threat, a big question mark hung over everyone’s future. There was a strong sense among the workforce that this was only the beginning.
So when Andrew and his colleagues at Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick were balloted for strike action, it was far from an easy decision to make.
“It was like going into a big unknown,” he told UniteLIVE. “Strikes don’t happen these days like they used to. Obviously we were a bit apprehensive. But for me, the way that things looked at that moment in time, it felt as if we were left with no other option really.”
As the date of the first planned strike drew nearer, Andrew and his colleagues held out hope that the company would be willing to negotiate.
“We’d sent a strong message with our ballot that we’d be willing to go out on strike if required,” Andrew explained. “That was the point that we thought, ‘surely they’ll come to the table and we’ll sort something out’. But then it became increasingly apparent that they weren’t going to budge.”
When the fated day November 6 arrived, Andrew’s initial reluctance over strike action gave way to resolute determination.
“I thought, well we’re doing this now. We’ve agreed to do it, so we’ve got see it through. And as the strike went on, it dawned on me while this might not be the easiest thing to do, it was the right thing to do at that moment.
“There’s a lot of stigma with strikes and you really think to yourself, are we doing the right thing? And I felt that way up until we started strike action. But now that it’s happened and I’ve been through it, I think we did exactly the right thing. We took a stand when we needed to.”
Andrew had never been on a picket line before, and he said at first it felt “a bit strange”. But then when he returned on the second day of the picket line, that feeling dissipated.
“It’s difficult to describe but you start to build this incredible camaraderie. I met people on the picket line that I’d never even met or spoken to before in the nearly 30 years I’ve worked for the same company. For me, as daft as it sounds, the strike really brought us closer together. Before, we were FBUK and SCAM, but now were are a genuinely united and proud Barnoldswick site – standing together as one.”
Although Andrew and his colleagues in SCAM had agreed to take strike action to defend their colleagues in FBUK, their own future was uncertain too. And their worst fears were confirmed when Rolls-Royce announced on December 3 plans to slash jobs in SCAM and outsource the work to ITP Aero in Spain.
“It was a very emotional day obviously,” Andrew recalled. “Knowing that you’ve given decades of your service to this company and just like that you’ve become surplus to requirements.
“I know that with everything that’s happened with the Covid pandemic – sometimes crises like this happen. But after all the time that you’ve put in over a number of years, it’s still a kick in the teeth.”
And it only further confirmed that taking strike action was the right thing to do, Andrew noted. Still, the going wasn’t easy.
“I consider myself to be quite mentally strong but this whole ordeal really tested me to the limit sometimes,” he said.
“Throughout the dispute even well before the strikes, when we first learned that our future was at risk, it was really tough. You had your good days and bad days; it was always up and down. Obviously you bring it home with you so it’s with you all the time, it’s always hanging over you — that feeling that everything you’ve worked for, for so many years, could all be gone in an instant.”
But even when things felt hopeless, Andrew and his colleagues kept on fighting — with their union Unite and their local community 100 per cent behind them.
“The support we got from the local community was very important in keeping us together and keeping us going,” Andrew said. “I’m not huge on technology but I also began to realise the power of social media and how it told our story and pushed out our message far and wide.”
After all their efforts — with members striking and mobilising rallies that drew widespread support; and with Unite reps and officers working tirelessly behind the scenes to negotiate with management – the unthinkable happened: a deal was struck. And it wasn’t just any deal that temporarily preserved a few hundred jobs – it has actually paved the way for a long-term, bright future.
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.
“When we got the news of the deal, I couldn’t believe it really,” Andrew told UniteLIVE. “To have no compulsory redundancies agreed for two years in the middle of a pandemic is something you’d never even dream of. It does give us a lot of confidence going forward that these two years can be used to hopefully bring in the work we need to keep people employed, with the further hope of making the business boom long-term.
“We were nearly in a position of bulldozers coming in, so to speak, and now it’s like, hang on a minute – if this happens, and that happens, all of a sudden we’re looking at a 10-year plan, or a 20-year plan or even longer.
“Considering where we were, and considering where we are now, I think it’s phenomenal. And obviously Unite’s role in this was enormous. They put political pressure, industrial pressure, media pressure — all sorts of pressure coming from all directions to help us secure this outcome.”
‘You’ve got to join a union’
During Heart Unions week this week, Andrew couldn’t be prouder to be a Unite member.
“I can’t say enough good things about Unite. Before all this, I didn’t really know what unions did but I certainly do now. I’ve since been on to my partner, telling her you’ve got to join a union – you just never know when you might need it. Now that I’ve had personal experience of what a union can do, I can’t stress how important it is.”
Andrew emphasised that despite taking strike action, it hasn’t changed how he feels about his work and his employer.
“I’m still very proud that I work for Rolls-Royce,” he said. “Looking back, I wish this didn’t have to happen but I think what we could take out from this is that there’s always another way of approaching things. We don’t just have to accept job losses and accept our fate.”
More than anything, Andrew looks forward to a bright future for Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick, one that will continue long after he and his colleagues have left.
“Obviously when things got bad you think of your own personal circumstances, but for me, having gone through the Rolls-Royce system, it was also about giving opportunities to young kids. We did this for their future too. You want them coming in the gate long after you’ve done your time and gone out of it. When you look at it this way, you realise why we had to take a stand.”
By Hajera Blagg
Pic by Unite North West