GKN Aerospace of East Cowes Isle of Wight, the largest employer on the island, employs a thousand workers making components for the aircraft industry out of composite materials. In August of 2013, the management of GKN decided to impose a wage cut and an increase in the working week of one hour.
The Boeing 737 MAX, for which GKN now has a contract to produce winglets – structures designed to reduce turbulence at the wing tips.
The reasoning behind the proposal was that the capacity for production would have to be more efficient. The market had become more competitive and less profitable. This statement was put out by the management after the company had published on its website the news that it had declared a profit of £278 million.
After lengthy discussions between the union Unite and the management ended in a failure to agree, and a ballot of the workforce was held. That ballot overwhelmingly rejected the management’s proposals. Over a period of several weeks the management put two more slightly amended proposals to the workforce, each one being rejected by ballot, conducted on the company’s premises.
A third proposal was put to the workforce in the form of a ballot. This time the management were determined that it should be accepted by the workforce, and it enlisted the assistance of higher management in bullying and intimidating the workforce into submission, according to local union officials.
A proper ballot
The union refused to accept the outcome of the latest ballot and called a mass meeting of the workforce at Newport Football Club. The meeting decided to have a postal ballot of its members to avoid any further corruption of the voting system. The outcome of the last ballot was an overwhelming rejection of the management’s proposals for an increase in the working week and a reduction in pay.
The question now is, does the management want to force the workers into taking industrial action or is it going to see sense and continue to make its highly profitable product?
This question now becomes more relevant as it was announced in the first week of December 2013 that a multimillion-pound order has been placed by Boeing with GKN.
In a joint statement Boeing, GKN and Business Secretary Vince Cable revealed that GKN had been selected to manufacture sets of drag-reducing winglets for the 737 MAX, which has more than 1600 orders from around the world. They will be made at East Cowes, with final assembly at GKN’s facility in South Carolina.
Boeing's newest family of single-aisle aircraft, the 737 MAX, is scheduled to make its first flight in 2016 with deliveries to customers beginning in 2017. GKN will deliver the first development winglet sets to Boeing in 2015.
Two suppliers are manufacturing winglets for the 737 MAX programme, GKN and Korean Air Aerospace Division (KAL-ASD) in South Korea. Boeing forecasts a market for 24,670 single-aisle aeroplanes, worth £1.4 trillion.
GKN Chief Executive Marcus Bryson said that the contract was bid on an assumed future cost base, which implies that GKN management were endeavouring to lower their costs in order to gain this lucrative contract.
In a joint statement, both the company and Unite agreed that the consultation process could have been handled more effectively.
The GKN workforce has been subject to months of intimidation, bullying and ballot rigging by the management, but the workers have remained resolute in their determination to maintain their working conditions. ■
• See also “Aerospace: vital for Britain”, page 12.