In the freezing cold on Saturday December
19th members of the UNITE union from the threatened Ericsson plant
at Ansty near Coventry were out in
Coventry city centre distributing leaflets to the public as part of the
campaign to keep the plant open. They were joined by myself from CTUC. I spoke
to Sean Leahy, senior staff rep for UNITE.
Darrall Cozens: Sean, what is the
situation at the moment in relation to the mood of the workforce and so on?
Sean Leahy: Well, we are
getting more strongly organised in terms of more people joining the union,
getting on to doubling the size of the union membership there. That is very
good as we now represent a majority amongst the workforce when we exclude the
management. We have had a couple of mass meetings. At this moment we are not
talking to the company about redundancies as we are still trying to oppose the
union reps staged a small demonstration outside the plant early yesterday
morning and many members came and stood outside the meeting room at 09:30
before the first local consultation meeting wearing our stickers as a sign of
support to the reps. This was in addition to the two mass meetings that we have
held so far.
We think that we have got a
tool to challenge the company with as they have not carried out proper
consultations on this issue with the local managers. We have also talked to
other unions in Europe about this lack of
consultation. We have also talked to the government and to local councillors
but we have also said to the workforce that if we want to get more help and if
we want to move Ericsson on this issue, then we need to have a more visible
campaign amongst the membership.
We have got some strengths in relation to
the plant closure. On the face of it, there may be the danger that people may
feel that there is little we can do about it but we have got things that the
company wants. For example there is the issue of the ordinary transfer of
knowledge that we will not cooperate with until it has been agreed in the
consultation process. We are fighting over that at the moment. We had the first
consultation meeting yesterday. Lots of the members turned up to greet the
management reps as they went into the meeting. It was a small demonstration of
support for what the trade union reps are trying to achieve. So at the moment
it is small scale things as we try to build up the support and we are building
support for the union.
DC: So the mood is quite buoyant at the
SL: Yes, it is buoyant. I think that
Ericsson thought it was going to be a done deal, that consultation is just a
farce. They thought that they were just going to roll ahead but I think that we
are having some impact.
DC: From previous meetings that we have
had in the labour movement in Coventry
is has emerged that there are between 700 and 800 workers there almost wholly
engaged in research and development for telecommunication products. Is that
SL: That’s right. And this is a major
thing that we have brought up with the government. The industry is
strategically important for the UK.
It is practically the only R&D centre for telecoms. It is one of the
industries of the future and it is important for the green economy. Up to now
the government has found it difficult to defend manufacturing jobs in the UK as they have
been moving to low cost countries. And this is important because for the first
time we have a major European company taking the decision to move all of its
R&D out of the UK
and base it in low cost countries.
DC: So the potential closure of the plant
would not only be a tremendous blow to the workers, their families and their
standard of living but also in relation to the knowledge and skills and
experience that they’ve got and the dispersal of that would be a terrible blow
to the development of the economy.
SL: That’s right. We think that the
government needs to review its strategy. I don’t think it’s got one. It doesn’t
seem to know what to do about it. The government wasn’t even involved by
Ericsson in advance of the decision. Even the local management did not know
about the decision to close the plant. They only found out about it an hour
before the workers were told. The government wasn’t told in advance. They were
shocked by it. But they haven’t got a strategy to deal with it at the moment.
Coventry City Council has been quite supportive to us. They are concerned about
it because there have been loads invested by the West
Midlands in the site. The West midlands Regional Development
Council have put in about £40 million for the infrastructure, for the site,
£10m for the roads that are actually still being completed at this moment. The
main road into the site for example has still not got its lights switched on.
DC: So it has been public money poured into
a private company and a few months after it was opened it is closing.
SL: I think that locally we fought very
hard for Ericsson to invest in the region and we were successful. And even now
it is going to cost them a lot of money to leave the building as they actually
paid for it. The building by the way could be in Sweden as it is a bespoke site. And
it is a great new building to work in. It is just crazy. We all went in there
with everyone feeling on a high. And then only three months later the whole place
is going to be mothballed. It is incredible, unbelievable!
DC: You have obviously had contact with
the government and through the local MPs, but what sort of strategy are you
looking for from the government as you did say that there seems to be the
absence of a strategy at the moment?
SL: Well, first of all we wanted them to
do what they could to change Ericsson’s decision. But of course they will argue
that they have no real power to do that. They can ask but if they don’t get,
what then? But I don’t think that it has to stop there. The government has
spoken to Ericsson but they haven’t been willing to review their decision. OK,
there are local ways of getting money into the region to help with individual
packages of redeployment. But this is crazy because of the value of all those
skills that have to be organised.
DC: It seems crazy, doesn’t it, that the
government is willing to pump £billions into the banks where real wealth is not
created, but in manufacturing like your area it is cast aside, it has no
strategy for it?
SL: Yes, all of those workers are thrown
into the wind. Some of them may end up working in Tescos or some may end up in
teaching where they will be valuable but by and large they will be scattered to
the wind and that advantage that we had in R&D in this country in Telecomms
will be completely lost. It will even impact on areas like security which will
be in the hands of foreign companies operating outside the UK. Ericsson is
Swedish, a multinational, but at least it had the workforce here in the UK. With the
current plans all the skills will be lost completely.
DC: As a senior staff rep in UNITE your
job is obviously to give a lead in this situation, but the dangers sometimes in
giving a lead are that you can get way ahead of the members in the kind of lead
that you are giving. The reason I am saying that is that you are looking for a
strategy for the government to come in maybe with subsidies or something like
that to keep the company going, but has the question been raised in the
discussions that you have been having of the public ownership of the company to
retain the skills, to retain the development base?
SL: Not fully, no. Not in terms of the
government completely taking it over. I think that that is major step from the
current position where both of the major parties support the free market. To
get the government to do something like that we would have to have a lot more
strength than we have at the moment. But short of that there is a role that the
government could play in terms of coming up with some investment to try and
save the workforce at Ansty Park, maybe in conjunction with money from Europe,
or Ericsson could possibly leave something or find other partners.
DC: What kind of support have you had
from the national union UNITE?
SL: We have had good support. They have
given us all the support that we have asked for. They have helped us to get the
campaign going. They have opened doors for us wherever they could. But you
can’t expect the union to come in and do the job for us. And we have to tell
our members that.
DC: Because the union is the membership.
SL: Yes, that’s right.
DC: So at the moment leading up to
Christmas the situation looks very hopeful with a buoyant mood and the
determination to win.
SL: Absolutely, yes.
DC: Wonderful. Thank you Sean for the
interview. That’s brilliant.