Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/14206
And the night was not unruly....
(An evening with the night pickets at Mayr-Melnhof Packaging, Bootle, Merseyside)
"Softly, comrades, 'they' are sleeping,
And we watch them while the slow days steal away,
One by one, to resist we're going,
For our eyes not heavy growing;-
There is silence o'er the gate-house erst so grey;
For the management ranks are sleeping;
We are but the pickets, keeping
Watch and ward til break of day...."
149 workers at Mayr-Melnhof Packaging (MMP) in Bootle, Merseyside have been locked out of their workplace in a dispute with management.
Workers have picketed the main gates, initially by day, but since March have progressed to twenty-four hour pickets on a workers' shift system that mirrors their attendance on any normal working day or night. The lock-out commenced on Saturday 18th February and is still ongoing.
March 12th, 6.00pm
Arriving on the picket lines there are about 50 workers and a very well organised protest in place, it's just before dusk and the prospect of another long and cold night beckons, but this does nothing to dampen the pickets' spirits.
A few introductions and warm welcomes follow initial moments of caution for the workers, with management lies and rumour rife, they are understandably nervous of strange faces. Once introduced the welcome is touchingly considerate, I am constantly asked if I am warm enough, or whether I would like a hot drink,
tea or coffee, am offered biscuits and snacks of various varieties. Other workers approach and are very eager to tell me the latest news and talk of personal experiences.
The picket is highly efficient, three wood filled oil drums serve as heating, the fuel provided by copious amounts of wood broken from donated pallets - feeding these and keeping them constantly burning is a continuous process that endures throughout the night.
A tent has been purchased and this has been erected along a wall, providing a meeting place, storage space and emergency shelter if the weather turns bad.
After a previous, brief and peaceful occupation of the plant that was witnessed by police, management lies reached an all time height ....
"They say we carried metal bars - but really we were carrying flags. They also said we threatened and intimidated other staff, cleaners and management. It's all a complete and disgusting lie. The police were with us at the time this was supposed to be happening and they can prove we were peaceful and there were no threats . The management lies and rhetoric haven't weakened our resolve. It's as solid as ever here at the moment and the mood's great".
(MMP Picket, Bootle, Liverpool)
Darkness has enveloped the site, the area is dimly lit and the only lights emanate from the gate-house, manned 24hrs and the blazing oil barrels around which people congregate to keep warm.
The second shift has arrived and there are new faces to meet and greet. The pickets are organised in the exact shifts they run inside the factory, a board on a wall serves as a checklist and for updated info and news.
Having made friends so quickly with the first shift, it is rather saddening to see them go and new faces arrive, and the introductions and welcomes begin all over again.
The main road quiet, only a few vehicles now where once was manic. The occasional passing police car, sirens blaring, turns a few heads as it pelts past on way to destinations unknown.
Large articulated trucks from the Kingsmill bread company enter and leave the main gate, as the MMP site is shared by other companies.
The pickets are consistently peaceful and have no argument with other companies or the drivers, and the passing trucks are greeted with waves, and shouts of support for the pickets, accompanying the idling engines are scents of diesel fuel, tyres, the hiss of airbrakes and the rattle of the gate-house locks.
Nothing's gone out of the site.
"Management have asked us to allow a couple of empty trailers out, which we've agreed as a gesture of goodwill. But we'll be checking them ourselves before we allow them to leave."
(MMP Picket, Bootle, Liverpool)
March 13th, 1.00am
Its lunchtime, a strange ritual considering it's gone 1am. The talk is of chicken and chips cooked on the oil drums.
Some outsiders may think this extravagant, but 24 hour picket duty is no joke, the stakes here could not be higher, people's livelihoods are on the line.
Manning a continuous and well-manned picket takes much organising and commitment by all involved and being outside on cold nights, workers have to take care of themselves by keeping warm and hot food is an essential part of this.
It also keeps up morale when it's cold and the world is dark and quiet. Industrial estates are bleak places at the best of times, particularly at night.
The gate-house and its pickets are silhouetted in the camp fires, a lone light like an oasis of hope in an industrial wilderness.
"Our main worry is that this is all part of a hidden agenda, a plan to move production away from this site and use the factory as a basic finishing-plant with all the consequences and job losses that entails".
(MMP Picket, Bootle, Liverpool)
The night wears on and lunch for many is a distant memory, These are the lonely moments, the world asleep in darkness, chills and the cold stalk the pickets at the gate-house and no amount of blazing wood can adequately keep them at bay.
Subtle tricks are employed to distract from the cold, topics of conversation vary wildly with much laughter a welcome distraction.
Much amusement ensues recalling the attempts to thoroughly cook the chicken dinner to ensure it was safe to eat and did not give everyone the trots.
The cooking was approached with such vigour that the chickens actually caught fire in the tin and had to be suitably extinguished without ruining the food, all this watched in bewilderment by security guards in the gate-house.
Inevitably the discussions centre more and more on the future. Many at the factory have worked there many years varying from 7 to 40 in most cases.
No-one knows what the management has planned. Having said that, management don't seem to have a clue either, but worryingly, the Unite union's efforts to clarify just exactly what is going on has proved difficult in the current climate of lies and rumour.
Everyone knew and accepted that some redundancies would have to be made and these were going to be on a voluntary basis, but now management have come back with an even worse offer and proposals and a lock-out to add to the uncertainty.
"A delegation from Merseyside travelled to Europe, speaking to workers there to try and dispel the lies that management are currently spreading. Workers abroad at the company plants in Tunisia and Chile stopped production for two hours in support of Bootle pickets and were disciplined and threatened with the sack for doing so".
Phil Potter FOC, Father of Chapel, Unite. MMP Liverpool
The darkness slowly pales as the first faint streaks of dawn dribble across the sky from the east. All around the site pickets stir, stamping the cold out of tired limbs and proceeding to prepare the ground for the day shift due at 6.
The oil-drum fires are de-ashed and relit and new fresh wood is prepared. Rubbish is bagged and binned
and the whole site swept clean, as it has been throughout the long night. This is not done for effect, this is the way of proud and conscientious workers manning the pickets.
Great care is also taken when relighting the fire closest to the main road, so as not to endanger the stuffed horse adopted by and placed there by the pickets, slightly tatty and minus a tail, his scruffy appearance and glass-eyed stare reflecting the pickets' fires are a source of amusement to many passers-by and motorists.
His name is Trojan and he apparently has his own Facebook page.
A mass demonstration at the company's headquarters in Vienna saw at first hand how Mayr-Melnhof are trying to inflict total and absolute control over any perceived threat to their reputation.
Workers report that "management stooges" rushed out to cover-up and hide company logos and signage at the HQ so that media pictures would not show Mayr-Melnhof's pristine image brought into supposed disrepute by angry workers.
The dayshift arrives, in all cases early, just as they would had they been working a normal shift in the factory. No-one arrives late.
Everyone knows what is at stake here, and the support from the public and workers in other workplaces is strong and so gratefully received and appreciated.
Support from unlikely sources: Pickets tell of the local pub, right next to the gate-house, supplying them with electricity via an extension cable and allowing workers to use the toilet facilities.
Complete strangers not connected to MMP in any way, arriving at all hours, offering donations and wanting to spend a few hours alongside the pickets to show support.
Vehicles passing on the main road at all times of the day and night, sounding their horns to show solidarity for the pickets.
"We are trying to stop the work we do in Liverpool being done on the continent"
(John Sculley, MMP picket, Bootle, Liverpool)
The pickets are ordinary workers fighting for their basic rights, workers who have drawn a line in the sand and sent a clear message to an uncaring management that they will not be treated as though both they and the work they do are of no consequence.
As one worker summed up:
"All we ever wanted was to be treated fairly and valued for the hard work we all do"
Workers at MMP in Deeside are currently balloting on whether to join the dispute.
Messages of support can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Article and all Images © Stillshooter 2012.
Finally, I would like to thank Graham Manley (Unite), Phil Potter (FOC, Unite) and all the pickets on the main gate at Mayr-Melnof Packaging, Bootle, Merseyside for all their kindness, support and friendship shown to me during this one particular night picket without whose time and help the photographs and article would never have been possible.