Thursday, February 17, 2005

Workers take to the streets to protest against defence privatisation plans

MoD to “maintain robust posture” in row with TGWU

Hundreds of civilian workers at the Ministry of Defence held a mass demonstration outside the Tower yesterday as union leaders met with UK officials for a briefing on the proposed job cuts.

But just hours after the meeting collapsed against the background of noisy quayside protest, the Ministry of Defence made clear that it would not budge on its privatisation plans.

“The MoD will…maintain a robust posture regarding implementation of the necessary changes to employment structure,” said Headquarters British Forces Gibraltar in a sternly-worded statement.

The row over MoD jobs is rapidly descending into crisis that could take on a political dimension in the coming days.

Yesterday, the message from the workforce was as clear and unambiguous as the MoD's position. At around 2.10 pm, ten minutes after the meeting started, civilian workers from all MoD departments descended on the Tower banging on dustbin lids and venting their feelings at the top of their voices. Members of the Defence Fire Service also staged a walkout, closing the airfield for much of the afternoon. Estimates on the numbers involved at the Tower protest varied. According to the MoD, the figure was “a couple of hundred.” Unions put it at 1000. For those watching, both from up close and a distance, around 600 seemed an accurate figure. Either way, there were enough people there to ensure that the message was not lost.

As the protest at the Tower started, workers at the MoD generating station cut power to the military estate, including the Cammell Laird shipyard. Only the Royal Naval Hospital was excluded, for obvious reasons. They kept up the noise for nearly two hours and at one stage encircled the building where the meeting was being held.

“This is an underhand move by the MoD,” said one worker speaking to the Chronicle on his mobile phone from within the crowd. “This is political, not financial.” “Our livelihoods are at stake.”

In a statement, Commodore Alan Adair, Commander British Forces, reacted to the afternoon’s events with disappointment.

“I am aware that the last couple of days will have left many of the MoD workforce feeling uncertain about their future,” he said.

“I am sorry that the news was broken to the media before I have had the chance to brief employees, which I intend to do tomorrow at 10:30 am. I am also sorry to see that employees felt it necessary to stage a walkout before they have the full details of the package.”

According to the MoD, yesterday’s meeting represented the beginning of “full discussions” with the unions, negotiations that are set to continue over the coming weeks. But the unions’ interpretation of the afternoon’s encounter was far removed from that version of events.

“In the middle of the meeting, a military aide came in looking very concerned that there had been a power cut…and that therefore they would not continue with the meeting in the light of possible injuries…,” said Luis Montiel, district officer at the Transport and General Workers’ Union/ACTS, speaking to reporters after the protest. “So the meeting has been postponed.”

There were mixed reports throughout the protest – apparently stemming from MoD management, according to workers on the scene – that there had been three injuries at the Cammell Laird shipyard as a result of the power cut. But police and union sources repeatedly said that they had received no such reports, while Cammell Laird, when contacted by the Chronicle, replied curtly that they were not speaking to the press before hanging off. On repeating the call, a shipyard employee who refused to give her name restated the position, adding that there were problems with the telephones.

Union leaders would not be drawn on this point, but there was a clear sense amongst the workforce that the MoD had used the power cut and the non-existent injuries as an excuse to cancel a meeting that, because of the protest, was being conducted under severe pressure. The MoD offered to reconvene the meeting several hours after the protest had ended, but the unions declined.

Labour leaders are due to meet again this morning with both the CBF and Susan Scholefield, command secretary at Permanent Joint Head Quarters in the UK. The meeting will be held under the so-called Whitley Process, a formal structure for negotiations between the MoD and trade unions.

As the workers left the protest yesterday afternoon, there was a mood of defiance, but also an occasional flash of gloomy resignation.

“The MoD will do whatever they want to do, even if we go purple in the face,” said one woman as she walked back to work. “If we take strike action, all that will happen is that they’ll save on our pay packet for this month.”


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