Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mersey Lockouts Mark Heightened Class Struggle

A picketer keeps the fire burning through the night in Bootle this week
Industrial lockouts have been completely unknown in the UK for over fifty years. So it must be far from coincidence that two have taken place on Merseyside during the past month. Though there are slight differences between the cases, both are the result of bosses using the current crisis to lower production costs, and increase the rate of exploitation.

The term 'lock-out' was explained by Phil Dickens in his initial report on the Bootle packaging standoff:
"A lock-out is, essentially, the reverse of a strike. It is where an employer denies staff work and pay unless they submit to certain conditions. It is used quite frequently in industrial disputes across the world, though hasn't been in Britain for over half a century. If it starts being used by British bosses now, it will reflect the idea that the anti-strike laws are no longer enough to contain worker militancy."
Workers at the Mayr-Melnhof Packaging (MMP) have now been locked out of their Bootle factory for nearly four weeks. The bosses took the action after staff had struck twice in a week over proposed redundancies. MMP is a multinational business, and the threat to sack forty-nine workers is believed to have followed the loss of a major contract. Of the 139 employees at the Bootle factory, 98% had voted for the strike action, angry that talks between Unite and MMP had only reduced the number of redundancies by twelve, with a loss of £1000-£2000 for each remaining employee.

Though they supported the strike action, the Unite union made it clear they "had accepted the fact that there would be job losses", and were only interested in negotiating "the right conditions".

According to the World Socialist Website, the second 'offer', which was rejected by 158 to 1:
"[...] is based on the company operating a “social fund” to bridge the new payoff and what was agreed in 2008 and 2010 [when previous 'voluntary redundancies' were made]. This would be tied to the company using its discretion to pay out from the fund. It also involves the reinstatement of the original 49 redundancies".
Locked out workers in Birkenhead, Wirral
MMP also announced - with the tacit agreement of Unite - that they would pursue disciplinary action against fifteen workers they charge were connected to a brief occupation of the factory at the start of the lockout.

The dispute is still unresolved, and round the clock pickets are continuing. Messages of solidarity can be sent to

Across the Mersey, the struggle at the Tranfoods meat packaging plant in Birkenhead is still in its early stages. On Tuesday, the Working Class Self Organisation blog reported that:
"Around 200 workers at Tranfoods in Wirral, Merseyside today held a demonstration outside the factory after being ‘locked out’ last week by the management. The owners of the factory, ‘Tulip’, had started a period of consultation with a view to closing the factory due to a decline in orders. The unions had been in negotiation with Tulip regarding redundancy pay, but have accused Tulip of reneging on an agreement. Tulip deny that any agreement was ever reached, and are now saying they will only pay the basic legal minimum redundancy. When workers arrived for work last week, they found the gates locked."
Today, the Tulip workers travelled to London to meet protest their employers' actions in the capital. But this is something of a union-led diversion. It is primarily on Merseyside that a real challenge to these bosses can be built, if these struggles and others are linked up at the grassroots.

Read a 2009 account of working conditions at Tranfoods here.
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