As the coronavirus pandemic struck in the early weeks of March, Catherine Greaves, a mother of three, took maternity leave to look after her newborn son. The Rolls-Royce engineer had become a fixture of the firm’s Barnoldswick site in Lancashire, joining the aerospace company as an apprentice 18 years earlier.
The career move was family tradition. Her father, her uncle, a great-grandfather and three of her grandparents had all worked at Rolls-Royce. So, when Greaves started to show an interest in engineering, they had encouraged her to follow in their stead. For them, the Bankfield and Ghyll Brow factories in Barnoldswick, five minutes away from the family home, had offered secure work for life. Greaves expected much the same.
She couldn’t imagine that she might be the last person in her family to clock-out of the factory. But that changed three months into her maternity leave. In June, work friends told Greaves that Rolls-Royce planned to layoff 200 people in Barnoldswick. The company had not contacted her directly about the announcement, but later called to say her job was safe. Greaves was in tears when she picked up the phone, fully expecting that she was about to get the sack.
Two months later, the 34 year old was rattled again. Rolls-Royce revealed that it planned to axe a further 350 jobs in the town and offshore fan blade production to Singapore, sparking strike action. It wasn’t clear that Greaves would escape the latest round of cuts.
“The first thing I did was ring my dad,” Greaves told Tribune, close to tears outside her home. “Who else do you ring than someone who gets it?”
Her father stood on the picket against Rolls-Royce when the firm last faced major strike action in 1979. Greaves still remembers the financial pain her family endured several years after the strikes. “It’s coming again, and it’s really upset my dad actually, because he knows how horrible it was when it happened to him,” she said. “Now it’s happening again. It’s like history repeating itself, and it’s horrible.”
After Rolls-Royce unveiled its plans to cut more than 500 jobs in Barnoldswick and offshore most of the site’s work to Singapore and Spain by 2023, Unite the union balloted members on strike action. Ninety-four percent voted in favour of a picket. They understood that the company faced tough times. Coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions had put a big dent in revenue, which fell by 26 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2020. Yet, they didn’t believe axing the Barnoldswick site in a dash to cut costs offered a meaningful, long-term solution to the problem.
“This company, long-term, has been fantastic for this area. It’s just lost its way and needs realigning,” one technician told Tribune on condition of anonymity. “It needs to understand that there’s a future here. Rolls-Royce built its name on quality, not on cost.”
The strike was originally set to last for three weeks in November. But, when management announced a Christmas lockout on November 27, and told staff that they would be put on an unofficial company “furlough” scheme that would see their pay docked by 20 percent for two weeks, union workers extended the strike to cover the festive period.
A Unite official told Tribune that they believed the company’s “furlough” scheme, not linked to the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme, could be an unlawful deduction of pay. A Rolls-Royce spokesperson said: “Following discussions with our trade unions, they are fully aware of the details of our 80% company furlough scheme and on its use in Barnoldswick. We do not share the view that this is an unlawful proposition.”
A Town’s Future
Standing on the picket line in mid-December, few wanted to be stood outside the factory gates and a nearby Aldi car park, waving flags and holding banners in the bitter cold. But, fewer were ready to roll over and watch hundreds of local livelihoods shipped overseas—a prospect that could spell ruin not only for themselves, but hundreds of other people living in the area.
The technician on the picket said his Christmas had been “ruined” by the threat of redundancy. He’d recently bought a family home, but expected to spend the holidays wondering whether or not he’d be able to sell up and move elsewhere for work.
“The whole year’s been ruined. My whole life’s been put on hold,” he said. “The government always says save for tomorrow. Well I did, and it’s benefited me absolutely nothing.”
Another worker at the factory, a father of two who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, told Tribune that he’d already had difficult talks with his children about the future of the site. They are both old enough to read the picket signs, and have asked their dad whether he could end up out of work.
“It’s unnerving. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve lost my job before, and you’ve always got to make a living, you got to feed your kids, put food on the table,” he said. “At this particular time of the year, you’re trying to protect your children as best you can.”
Spelling out what the future could hold for him and his family if Rolls-Royce does axe his job, he said: “Me and my wife have talked about, do we move, do we do that to the children? They don’t want to, they’re not up for it. So it’s either we move the children out and go somewhere else, or end up being on the dole for a while, until I can get a job, and there’s not much around here for a manual labourer.”
Catherine Greaves, the mother of three on maternity leave, remortgaged her family home so she could afford childcare and upkeep. Now she fears that she won’t be able to afford to hold onto the house she grew up in. “That’s the reality for a lot of us at Rolls-Royce,” she said. “You do the calculations—what will I do if I don’t have that wage—and the figures just don’t add up.”
Four union workers pitched outside the Aldi car park fretted over research from Unite that found almost two-thirds of workers who lost their jobs at Rolls-Royce’s Inchinnan plant in Scotland were out of work months after the cuts were unveiled. “There are other options for people, but not for the people of Barnoldswick,” one picketer said. “People will then have to commute, and there’s not much in Burnley. All the aerospace companies have laid off.”
With the union predicting that the Barnoldswick site could be shuttered entirely when staff levels are reduced from 740 pre-Covid to around 200 under the planned cuts, locals fear that the town’s economy could be decimated if work for suppliers dries up, and factory employees no longer spend money in local shops, cafés and pubs. (Rolls-Royce has not said it will close the Bankfield site completely, and claims that it will maintain some work at the site. The Ghyll Brow site will be closed.)
According to census data from almost a decade ago, a little under 11,000 people lived in the Barnoldswick area, and roughly half of residents were in work. Just over a quarter of workers in the parish, more than 1,500 people, were employed in the manufacturing sector. In the wider Pendle district of Lancashire—home to Barnoldswick and a handful of other small towns north of Burnley—the aerospace sector continues to be a key employer, despite the overall decline in manufacturing work.
When you arrive in Barnoldswick, it’s immediately clear how desperate locals are to keep skilled manual work in the community. The ‘Save Our Site’ banners handed out by Unite can be seen everywhere, from the roadside to the window of the local Ladbrokes. The Bankfield site can almost be heard before it’s seen; most who drive past the factory beep their horns and wave at the picket line.
“I’ve stood on the front and there’s been a number of people come up to me in tears, crying, saying I’m just devastated, I can’t believe Rolls-Royce are doing this,” Unite regional officer Ross Quinn said. “You also see people with real pride in the fact that the workers are standing up and aren’t just gonna roll over and let something so vital to the area just disappear.”
Councillor David Whipp, a local whose brother used to work at Rolls-Royce before he passed away earlier this year, said it would be hard to find someone in Barnoldswick who didn’t have some link to the aerospace company. The Liberal Democrat now fears the “bottom will drop out of the local economy” if Rolls-Royce move operations abroad.
“Our housing market will suffer. At worst, we could find we’ve got empty factories, no jobs and a drift away from the town,” he said. “Why would people want to come and live here? It’s a lovely place to live, but if the jobs aren’t here, people will follow the jobs.”
“You take out the largest piece, you know, it’s like cutting the head off a flower: the rest of it will wilt,” one worker on the picket line, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “We’re not fighting for 350 jobs here, we’re fighting for the entire supply chain.”
A Feeling of Betrayal
Betrayal was a word that came up a lot in conversations with locals. Generations had invested countless hours of hard work into Rolls-Royce’s success over the span of eight decades. As Britain fought the Nazis in the 1940s, the Royal Air Force officer Frank Whittle developed jet engines at the Barnoldswick site. Many people in the town remembered their parents ringing home to say they’d be back late because they had a part to get off the run, or a problem to solve.
But now the company wants to abandon most of its work in the town, because it would be more cost-effective to hand it over to people in Singapore. Barnoldswick staff trained those workers, and say they offered to help only after they were promised that the site would solely be there to handle extra work.
Rolls-Royce also received furlough money from British taxpayers under the coronavirus job retention scheme this year. The aerospace firm promised to repay funds received for anyone hit by compulsory redundancy, but it’s unclear whether the multi-billion pound company will also refund taxpayers for jobs that have been cut under voluntary redundancy schemes. (Tribune asked the firm to clarify.)
“It does feel like a huge betrayal, because we’ve worked really hard. When Rolls-Royce have had times of struggle, we’ve been there and we’ve put every hour in we could to help,” Greaves said. “There’s times where I’ve done two, three, four hours overtime. I’ve had to ring up just to get someone to look after my children, just so I can go in and help to get the job out the door.”
“You’ve done all the hard work, you’ve done all the graft, you’ve struggled, and now it’s almost like they’re using that against you, saying you’re not cost effective,” one worker on the picket, the father of two quoted earlier in this article, said. “It’s not just my money, it’s not just my taxes, it’s people who won’t even know who we are who’ve paid into this, to now end up with all the jobs you’ve paid for with grants off to Singapore.”
Locals frustrated with Rolls-Royce were similarly angry with the powers that be in Westminster. Aside from an Early Day Motion and a few pointed questions from the opposition benches, there has been little fuss over the dispute in Parliament.
“When a company makes a lot of its money from servicing aero engines, as Rolls-Royce does, it is a very difficult time at the moment,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons in November. “We are keen to work with Rolls-Royce to ensure that that company has a long-term future as a great, great British company.”
On the same day, the Labour MP Navendu Mishra urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to condemn Rolls Royce’s “bully-boy” tactics. Sunak replied: “I urge all companies to work constructively with their workforces through what is a difficult period and, we hope, find resolution. Collectively, we are all trying to protect jobs, but of course this is a very challenging set of circumstances.”
Asked how they rated the political response to the Rolls-Royce cuts, Barnoldswick workers felt the government had completely glossed them over, or should have done more to keep their jobs safe when they handed over coronavirus relief funds.
“If he does something, it feels very much too little, too late,” Greaves said of the prime minister. “He should have been there at the beginning for the aerospace industry.”
“I think what the workers want here is less warm words and more practical examples that we’re gonna do something, because we can’t see anyone who believes that we should be losing these skills or losing the work that’s in this factory,” Ross Quinn of Unite added.
“All of that collective experience and knowledge that’s been passed on, what other developed country would just throw that on the scrap heap? It’s madness, absolute madness.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Rolls-Royce employee on the picket line was blunt in his assessment. “It’s British taxpayers’ money, it should be going to our factories to keep British work here,” he said. “It’s our government funding them, and they’re going to offshore our work with our own money. It fucking stinks.”