Unite members at GKN Erdington took their fight to save their plant – an absolutely vital cog in the wider UK car manufacturing machine – to Parliament this week.
On Tuesday (July 6), the workers met with several Labour MPs — including shadow business secretary Ed Miliband as well as Anneliese Dodds, Grahame Morris, Chris Matheson and others — to call on the government to step in and challenge GKN, owned by Melrose, over plans to close the factory.
The GKN site in Erdington has a proud history stretching back more than five decades and is the only plant in the UK that produces drivetrains, which are supplied to JLR, Nissan, Toyota and other major UK car manufacturers.
Despite the plant’s critical importance, Melrose, which controversially staged a hostile takeover of GKN in 2018, announced in January that it would close the site by next year and transfer the work to Poland and France — a move that would imperil more than 500 highly-skilled, specialised UK jobs.
Unite rep and GKN worker Gwyn Fellows (pictured below), who attended the lobby and demo outside Parliament on Tuesday, told UniteLive exactly what was at stake for him and his family.
“When I first heard the news that the factory would be closing, I felt sick. It was heartbreaking for my family and it’s just brought on loads of worries,” he said. “My biggest fear is trying to find a decent, well-paid job. I’m worried about mortgage payments and I’m worried about my pension. I’ve got another 20 years of working life left and everything has changed now.”
Gwyn, who has worked at the GKN factory for 20 years, said he feels especially betrayed by the fact that Melrose broke promises it made in 2018 that it would maintain a UK presence and would not slash jobs.
“We’ve got the skills and the know-how and we’re one of the main suppliers to JLR. They’re a UK company – how could they do this to us? They just threw us on the scrapheap for cheap labour. It’s vile what they’ve done.”
Unite deputy convenor at GKN Erdington Richard Cook likewise expressed disgust at Melrose’s plans to shut the site.
“The company has not honoured its commitments,” he explained. “And with the govenrment’s plans to ban diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030, it just doesn’t make sense that they would close a plant that has the potential to be a huge player in the drive toward electrification.”
Like Gwyn, Richard also said he and his colleagues have very serious concerns about their and their families’ future.
“I’ve worked there for 30 years and it’s the only ever job I’ve had since finishing school,” he said. “It’s a well-paid job with good terms and conditions. We have really specialised skills so to go out into the labour market and find another job if the plant closes will be very difficult for all of us.”
Despite his fears, Richard said he is confident that, with the wider support of Unite and Labour MPs, they will win their fight to save the plant.
“The fight continues as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “We’re not going to give up and we’re not going to let them win. We intend to succeed.”
Unite convenor at GKN Erdington Frank Duffy (pictured below) highlighted the wider ramifications if the plant were to close.
“The site is absolutely critical because it’s the only plant in the UK at present that supplies drivetrains to JLR, Nissan, Toyota and most of the major UK car manufacturers,” he explained. “We’re the only plant in the UK that does this type of work. If that plant is shut there’ll be no drivetrains coming from the UK; they’ll all have to be brought in from other parts of Europe.”
Frank also noted how the plant closure would devastate the local community.
“The plant closure would have a massive impact locally,” he said. “Erdington has one of the highest levels of unemployment in the UK. So the loss of another 519 jobs in that area would be horrific.”
In May, Unite, alongside other key stakeholders, presented an alternative business plan to GKN Melrose, one which would ensure the plant’s future viability for many decades to come. But weeks later, the company rejected the plan.
“A lot of people put a lot of time, work and effort into that plan,” Frank noted. “It was a 90-page plan that covered every single part of the business and it showed that the company could be viable if it were run in a different way. The company itself admitted it was a good plan but still chose to ignore it.”
Frank said he wasn’t totally surprised given that Melrose’s entire business model is chasing short-term profits at whatever cost.
“We argued back in 2018 when Melrose took over that this what would happen — that they would move all the work to low-cost countries just to maximise their profits,” he noted. “And we’ve been proven right because that’s exactly what they’ve done.”
Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband (pictured below) agreed.
“Frankly it is a disgrace that we have a system in this country where Melrose can takeover GKN,” he said in a speech at Unite’s GKN lobby event. “We’ve read all the promises. People at the time said those promises were vague, unclear and didn’t actually offer real guarantees and that is the way it is turning out.
“We’ve got to change the rules to stop this happening,” he added. “Because this is not the only time we’ve seen this. These companies come along, do these takeovers, make vague promises and then the vague promises are broken and jobs are lost.”
Miliband went on to criticise the government for so far failing to take an active role in saving the site.
“The government wants to go round the country and say they’re committed to leveling up, they’re committed to electric vehicle production, they’re committed to the supply chain – let them prove it,” he said. “There’s no use the government saying ‘well, there’s nothing we can do’. It’s their job to step up, not to stand aside. If they really stepped in and said they were going to act, then the company would listen.”
Vowing to continue to pressure the government to act, Miliband noted, “We will never give up hope; we’re going to do everything in our power and we’re going to keep on fighting with you.”
Frank Duffy agreed, highlighting that the government has shown the influence it can have in supporting car manufacturing after recent significant investment announcements, including Nissan in Sunderland and Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port.
“The government has just demonstrated the role that they can play with Nissan and Ellesmere Port,” Frank said. “We may not be at the same scale as Nissan but we’re absolutely essential to that wider infrastructure of motor manufacturing in this country. The government needs to step up and support the supply chain as well as the main car manufacturers.
“And we won’t give up the fight,” he noted, addressing Labour MPs and Unite members at Tuesday’s event. “With your support we’ll turn it around and we will be a plant that supplies a vibrant motor industry in this country.”
By Hajera Blagg
Pics by Mark Thomas