Throughout this pandemic, trade unions and their representatives have demonstrated in a very real way just why they are the most valued and influential voluntary organisations in the UK today. Our passion, experience and expertise has shone through in negotiating the furlough scheme that has protected the jobs and pay of over 11 million working people, while fighting to protect tens of thousands of our members’ jobs from redundancy and wage cuts in the most opportunistic ‘fire and rehire’ attacks, and working with many companies in genuine trouble to help them to survive. And nothing sums up our collective efforts more than the Battle for Barnoldswick.
The ground-breaking deal to save the plant that has now been agreed by the workforce doesn’t just save hundreds of jobs. It gives the historic Lancashire site, home of the Lancaster bomber and first jet engine, a new lease of life. I struggle to express how proud of each and every one of our members I am. Throughout this dispute, they have demonstrated on a daily basis the true values of trade unionism and they’ve done it themselves. The courage, determination and confidence they have shown during nine weeks of strike action, over the bitter cold of autumn and winter and in the middle of a pandemic, has united a community, brought families onto the streets and inspired a generation to fight. It’s been an honour to have represented them.
Our fantastic officer Ross Quinn, whose leadership and ability, alongside that of our convenor Mark Porter, to inspire and motivate our members, told the local paper how we’ve “run out of ways to describe the unbelievable courage and determination of this workforce”. I’m not sure we tried “formidable”, but they certainly were.
There are so many poignant and stirring moments and stories from those long nine weeks. The food bank donations, the Christmas raffle for the local hospice, the incredible car rally through neighbouring Pennine towns, the messages of support received from workers and unions around the world, and their own messages of solidarity to fellow workers on strike. But I will never, ever forget the stories of tears from some when the deal was set out to them, an emotional outpouring of joy and relief that the future they’d fought so hard for was finally staring them in the face.
From the notice of mass redundancies and genuine fear of total closure that provoked this dispute, through a period of company lockout and forced furlough, we’ve secured an agreement that provides for a minimum of ten years on-site manufacturing while we develop genuine opportunities to invest, retool and diversify. An agreement that thinks beyond the immediate and positions the site to manufacture the products that will green and clean our towns and cities, our skies and our seas, while generating the carbon-free energy we need to power a new green economy.
But this isn’t just an agreement to protect skilled jobs, pay and conditions. We’ve agreed to establish a new Barnoldswick training centre, a ‘centre of excellence’ to both reskill today’s workforce and bring through the next generation of apprentices, designers and engineers to develop the advanced manufacturing skills necessary to meet the challenges of climate change. Finally, we’ve secured the space and time to deliver it with a two-year no compulsory redundancy agreement coupled with a minimum, guaranteed, site headcount commitment at the end of it.
Why did I and the negotiating team fight so hard for this? To defend our fantastic members, their families and communities, of course. But this was not just about Barnoldswick. It was about the future of UK manufacturing and how we move from talking about diversification, developing technologies and green manufacturing to implementing it. In the total absence of a government-led industrial strategy, Unite has developed, fought for and won our own.
Barnoldswick represents a model for other manufacturers to work with us on, to position UK manufacturing as a world leader in green technologies. It gives us the opportunity to export the high value products that can not only help us save our planet, but importantly raise the revenues necessary to fund our public services, our NHS, schools and local services devastated from ten years of funding cuts and failed, ideological austerity.
Barnoldswick demonstrates many things. It proves that the potential for growth and jobs creation as we emerge from this crisis is enormous. It proves that unions, working with employers and communities, can achieve the green industrial future that Unite has demanded.
But above all, it has shown a generation that there is power in a union, that solidarity matters, and that such power is only true when we’re well-organised, confident and led by lions determined to win and who never give up. Barnoldswick raises expectations and aspirations of a better Britain. It gives us all that much-needed hope in the struggle for a brighter future.