Though we don’t want to go on strike, we can’t stand by and watch the British car industry fall victim to offshoring
- Frank Duffy is the Unite the Union plant convener at GKN Automotive, Birmingham
More than 500 workers, myself included, at the GKN Automotive factory in Birmingham have voted for strike action to save both our plant and British manufacturing. It’s the last thing we ever wanted to do, but we feel we have been left with no choice.
Currently, we manufacture and assemble components for drivelines, the all-important section underneath your car for transferring power from the engine and transmission to the wheels. In 2019, 90% of GKN’s components went into traditional combustion engines, but that may halve by 2025, with electric vehicles (EVs) taking 15% of components, and hybrids about 40%. The move to electric will only continue, as UK factories unveil their new vehicle plans before purely internal combustible engines are banned in 2030.
In order to future-proof our jobs and the British automotive industry, we need to transition to producing components for EVs, including new propulsion systems and xe-drives. GKN has developed a new e-drive with UK government funding at its Oxfordshire research facility, but sadly we won’t see this innovation creating new green jobs for British workers. Melrose, the owners of GKN, have decided to close our plant in 2022 and move jobs overseas.
We realised that if we want to see a green future for the UK car industry and save our skilled jobs, we couldn’t leave it to our bosses and had to take matters into our own hands. We put together a 90-page alternative plan detailing how we could reorganise production to save money and make these new components.
Ours is the first transition plan for an automotive plant proposed by union stewards in the UK, and an echo of the 1976 Lucas Plan, when shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace, also in Birmingham, proposed converting their plant to socially useful products.
Now, as then, our alternative plan proposed saving jobs in Birmingham while transitioning the plant into an asset to support the wider UK industry. That’s a win for the workforce, the industry and the environment. If that isn’t what’s meant by the phrase “just transition”, I don’t know what is. However, Melrose declined to take our plan forward.
Melrose, an investment firm that specialises in buying up and reselling manufacturing businesses, acquired GKN after a hostile takeover in 2018. Our union, Unite, was critical of the takeover at the time, arguing that the company’s track record of seeking to restructure companies that it acquires and sell them on after three to five years meant that it was not a suitable long-term owner.
Three years later, our factory is being closed. You can trace GKN’s origin back as far as 1759 and our own site on Chester Road has seen generations of the same family work here since it opened in 1956. Now we’re looking down the barrel of hundreds of skilled manufacturing workers being added to the local unemployment statistics.
Five of the 10 constituencies with the highest jobless rates anywhere in the UK can be found in Birmingham. Erdington, the home of our plant, has an unemployment rate of 12.5%, significantly higher than the national average.
Birmingham has been here before. When the massive Rover factory at Longbridge closed in 2005 the impact was felt for years. Unite’s predecessor union, Amicus, supported research which showed that despite 90% of the workers finding alternative employment, 66% were financially worse off, average incomes fell by more than £6,000 and 25% reported being in debt or being reliant on savings to get by.
Every automotive company in the world is gearing up for the transition. The future can’t be built on outsourced or offshored jobs, where workers in different countries are pitted against each other in a race to the bottom.
If we all want to see British manufacturing transition to new environmentally friendly technologies so that there are employment opportunities in the future, we need to retain jobs and skills like ours to make that happen. Support us. We’re fighting for your future too.
Frank Duffy is the Unite the Union plant convener at GKN Automotive, Birmingham
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