By Dale Street
The campaign for the reinstatement of victimised Bristol Rolls Royce convenor Jerry Hicks has ended — in defeat.
Jerry had worked for Rolls Royce in Bristol for 30 years. He had been an elected steward for 20 years, and elected convenor for the Test area of the Bristol Patchway plant for the past 15 years. For the last three years he had been the deputy chair of the Bristol Confederated Site Committee.
On 20 July he was sacked, charged with organising unofficial strike action to defend two of his members from dismissal, and that he had sought to influence the outcome of disciplinary proceedings.
When Jerry was first suspended, prior to dismissal, union members at the plant had walked out on strike. When Jerry was subsequently dismissed, workers again walked out.
An interim hearing of an Employment Tribunal held on 5 August found that Jerry had “probably (been) dismissed on trade union grounds” and that Rolls Royce had not followed correct procedures. The Tribunal recommended that Jerry be re-instated.
Workers in the Test area of the Bristol plant were voted two to one in favour of strike action to secure Jerry’s re-instatement. That began on 22 August. Three subsequent mass meetings voted in favour of holding a ballot to spread the strike action. But in a subsequent workplace ballot held on 8 September, the proposal to ballot for strikes was rejected by 326 votes to 212.
The striking Test area workers then felt forced to negotiate a return to work. A negotiated settlement promised no victimisations, and a compensatory payment of two weeks’ wages to the striking Test area workers. But it did not include Jerry’s re-instatement. On 12 September the Test area strikers, following a recommendation from Jerry, voted to return to work the following day.
No-one should underestimate the seriousness of this defeat. This was not a dispute about just one person, but a battle about basic trade union principles — the right of workers to elect their own representatives, the right of those representatives to fight for their members’ interests without fear of victimisation, and the right of workers to take strike action without having to jump through a succession of legal hoops.
If Rolls Royce can get away with victimising Jerry that is a green light for other employers to target union organisation in their own companies.
What is now needed is a sober discussion — especially within Jerry’s union, Amicus — about what, if anything, could have been done differently, and what lessons should be drawn from what is a bitter defeat, not just for Jerry but for the trade union movement as a whole.
The shop stewards at the Bristol plant ran a serious and thought-through campaign in pursuit of Jerry’s re-instatement. They used the law where it suited them, but without relying on it. The verdict of the Employment Tribunal interim hearing strengthened the campaign for Jerry’s re-instatement, but was never seen as a substitute for that campaign.
Jerry and other shop stewards from the Bristol plant toured the country, speaking at mass meetings of Rolls Royce workers and at any other meeting that wanted to give them a platform. A mass rally in Bristol in mid-August and a national demonstration in Bristol in early September helped keep up the momentum of the dispute.
The stewards also set up a website of their own and an e-mail list of contacts to spread news about developments in the dispute as quickly and as widely as possible.
Amicus declared the dispute official. Its Executive pledged full support for the campaign. It produced a leaflet and petition for Jerry’s re-instatement. And it declared the demonstration in Bristol in early September an official national Amicus demonstration. But ….
Those at the centre of the dispute will have a clearer picture of the obstacles which they faced than those on the outside. However, two or three things stand out.
Amicus, as a national organisation, did not make a serious attempt to mobilise maximum support for the campaign. Most Amicus regions did not organise transport for the demonstration in Bristol. The current issue of the Amicus Activist contains only a small article about the dispute — and not even an appeal or an address for financial support and messages of support. There was no mailing to appeal for support for Jerry’s campaign. The leaflets and petitions produced by Amicus were not properly circulated.
The failure by Amicus to translate its support for Jerry into active and high-profile campaigning — at no point during the dispute, for example, did Amicus General Secretary Derek Simpson ever visit Bristol — must have been one of the factors which led to the unsuccessful outcome of the workplace ballot of 8 September.
What of Amicus Unity Gazette, the “broad left” in Amicus? No doubt many individuals worked hard for the campaign. But in some regions the Gazette circulated little or no information and did nothing to build co-ordinating campaigning by local union activists.
During the dispute the “alternative” Amicus website: amicus.cc seemed more worked up about the so-called “Baylissgate” affair (see this page) than about the victimisation of an elected workplace representative.
Another factor is the existence of the anti-union laws which outlaw solidarity strike action and, indeed, any form of strike action which has not been sanctioned by the prescribed — time-consuming and cumbersome — legal requirements.
The existence of such laws, and their acceptance by the union leaderships, has undermined the ability of workers to take effective strike action, whether to defend a victimised representative, win better pay and conditions, or fight redundancies.
One of the lessons of this defeat has to be to step up the campaign for the repeal of the anti-union laws.
The campaign against Jerry’s victimisation was not some miserable defeat where people walked away from a fight and let the employer trample unhindered over trade union organisation. There was a real fight put up to win Jerry’s re-instatement. And that will remain inspiring.
But if there is no open accounting for the defeat of that campaign, and no attempt to challenge and overcome the weaknesses identifiable in that campaign, then other employers will soon be following in the footsteps of Rolls Royce.