‘We aren’t finished yet’
Unite members at manufacturing plant GKN in Erdington are standing resolute, refusing to give up the fight to save their jobs
Highly skilled workers at the GKN Automotive plant in Erdington, Birmingham, refuse to give up their fight for their livelihoods and the future of a proud site of British engineering excellence.
In January, GKN Automotive announced plans to close the Erdington plant, which manufactures car parts, and ship the work to sites in eastern Europe, putting more than 500 jobs at risk.
Unite member and set operator Alan Evans, who’s worked at the factory for nearly 10 years, told how news of the site closure came as a massive shock.
“There were rumours going around and I got the phone call about the news an hour before I got to work one morning,” he told uniteEXTRA. “I was devastated – in total shock. I really couldn’t believe it.”
Alan explained just what’s at stake for him and his family. “I’m the only breadwinner in the family – I pay all the rent and the bills. It would be devastating for us. It’ll be impossible to find work in the area that pays the same wages as they do at GKN.”
Alan’s partner of 10 years, who cares for their three children who are 16, 8 and 6 years old, was just as shocked, he said.
‘Who’s going to look after the kids?’
“You start thinking well who’s going to look after the kids, who’s going to work? When both you and your partner are worried like we are it puts a massive strain on the whole family.”
Alan, who’s lived across the street from the plant for 10 years and in the area his whole life, also highlighted the huge impact the site closure would have on the local community in Erdington, a suburb of Birmingham.
“The whole community would be devastated if GKN went,” he said. “I’ve lived in Erdington all my life and anyone you speak to always says you want to work at GKN – it’s a great place to work.
“Personally I’ve been wanting to work there for years. I wanted to get an apprenticeship when I was 16 but they weren’t taking any on then. When the chance came along to work there ten years ago I took it right away.
“I’ve got family members who have worked there, friends who have worked there and even old family friends who have worked there for years – it’s a really tight-knit community.”
“I felt numb when I first heard the news – I don’t think I quite took it in. I understood what they were saying but I didn’t really believe it. It just doesn’t seem real.”
Lisa Perham , GKN Testing Engineer
Unite member and GKN testing engineer Lisa Perham knows exactly how close the GKN community is – she and her partner first got together when they were GKN apprentices nearly 30 years ago.
When Lisa left school at 16, she started on a female engineering scheme at the former GKN Alridge plant, where she gained various qualifications. She then became an apprentice at GKN Alridge and was eventually employed there full-time as a testing engineer.
“I met my partner at senior school and then we parted when we both left school. But then we ended up at the same training centre – he couldn’t get rid of me!” Lisa said, laughing.
Lisa and her partner started a relationship as apprentices at GKN Alridge. She was later transferred to GKN Erdington in 1998, and her partner followed her in 2010 when the Alridge plant closed for good.
“We’ve been working together ever since,” Lisa noted. “As a testing engineer, I work in a team that tests products that we make to ensure that they’re good enough for vehicles -- I essentially ‘break’ things for a living if you like. Meanwhile, my partner fixes things and so it’s quite a good combination.”
Like Alan, Lisa said the news in January of the plant closure totally blindsided her.
“I felt numb when I first heard the news – I don’t think I quite took it in,” she told UniteLive. “I understood what they were saying but I didn’t really believe it. It just doesn’t seem real.”
If the plant were to close, Lisa said it would completely upend her and her partner’s lives.
“Because we started as teenagers, working together, we’ve never really known any different other than working for the same company,” she explained. “We’ve always been together so it’s going to be a huge shock to the system for both of us to have to go out there and get new jobs. It’s like starting all over again, going back to when we were 16.” Lisa noted that she felt especially shocked by a decision that in her mind simply didn’t make any sense.
“I find closing the plant a very strange decision to make considering the opportunities that our site has to offer in the way of new business, looking at new ventures, with our customers so close to us in the UK like JLR which is literally just over the road,” Lisa noted.
“We’ve got various bits and pieces that we supply as the sole supplier in this country,” she explained. “To shut us down and move work abroad just doesn’t make any sense.”
Alan agreed. “All the top car manufacturers in the UK supply parts from us because they know we’re good at what we do,” he said. “The people who’ve worked at GKN have put many, many years of hard work in the company. Whenever the company has struggled, it was always the workers that got them out of trouble.”
Alan said he is especially disappointed that Melrose, a venture capitalist firm which controversially bought GKN in a hostile takeover in 2018, hadn’t kept its promises. “When they took over the company, they said they were committed to making GKN a ‘UK manufacturing powerhouse’. And now they’ve going back on all their promises.”
He urges Melrose to the see the bigger picture.
‘Just think how many lives you’ll affect’
“My message to the company is to just think about how many lives their decision will affect,” he said, adding that the government too must play a decisive role.
“I think the government needs to hold Melrose accountable – they need to put pressure on Melrose to keep to the commitments they made to the UK. We need to do everything possible to keep this great engineering plant in this country open.”
‘Doing everything possible’ to save the plant is precisely what Unite and its membership at GKN Erdington are now tirelessly working on.
Soon after the site closure announcement, Unite established a team of union officers, senior management at the plant, shop stewards and local politicians to develop an alternative business plan to keep the plant open.
The alternative business plan, presented in May, highlighted that the site has an excellent record of delivering on improvement and transformation plans on time and on budget.
The plan also noted how workforce is highly adaptable in a fast changing environment and can operate in difficult circumstances, as demonstrated by how the workforce responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although the alternative plan has initially been rejected by GKN, Unite continues to push forward.
“Unite entirely rejects the false notion that there is not a long-term viable future for the GKN Birmingham factory,” said Unite GKN plant convenor Frank Duffy. “Let me tell you the fight will go on. We do not accept the company’s position and we will take whatever steps necessary to reverse this decision.”
Local Labour MP Jack Dromey immediately wrote to GKN Automotive’s CEO after the company rejected the alternative plan, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the plan further. Dromey also will be making representations to the government.
Meanwhile, Unite national officer for the automotive sector Des Quinn called on all interested parties including central government, local government, the supply chain, customers and GKN Automotive to “come together and ensure the factory’s future”.
“GKN Birmingham has the ability to supply the e-drives that the UK’s automotive sector desperately needs, it just needs the vision, support and investment to ensure it has a crucial role to play in the electrification of UK vehicles,” Quinn said. “In order for the electrification of cars to be a success in the UK, it is essential that GKN remains open and fully functioning and in order for that to be achieved it needs government support.”
Lisa agreed, adding that while she knew the “fight would be a lot harder now” after the alternative plan was rejected, she said she and her fellow Unite members would not give up hope.
“If the government can step in and people see the opportunities for electrification, then we still have a fight in our hands. And it’s vital that we keep carrying on this fight – we aren’t finished yet,” she added.
By Hajera Blagg