Longbridge workforce cheers its 'short-term' salvation

At The Factory Gates
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The Independent Online

John Towers was mobbed as a returning hero when he arrived at Longbridge to announce yesterday afternoon that the plant was saved .

Scores of Rover workers, who had spilt out of the factory to greet the man they believe to be their saviour, whistled, cheered and clapped as he struggled to make his way from his car into the building.

"Welcome back John," shouted one to the former chief executive of Rover, who now faces the daunting task of bringing a company, dismissed in Germany as "the English Patient" into profit within two years.

Mr Towers lived up to his reputation for self-effacement when he was asked if it was an historic day. "I hope not," he muttered, his head bowed. Once inside the factory he began his announcement with typical understatement, saying flatly: "It is quite an emotional day today."

Earlier, the reaction at Longbridge's Q Gate to the end of the threat to 8,000 jobs at the plant was less restrained. Workers hoisted colleagues on to their shoulders and chanted: "There's only one John Towers." Placards proclaimed: "Rover will not die", "Long live Rover" and "Blair - Phoenix will fly".

Motorists hit their horns as they passed Ray Egan, a retired policeman who has spent the past few weeks dressed as John Bull outside Longbridge, protesting at the loss of British jobs. Flanked by two Union Jacks and two bulldogs, he had waited since news of the deal broke early yesterday, to present a bottle of champagne to Mr Towers. "There's a feeling of elation. I am so pleased for the workers who now know they are not going to be sold down the river after all this time," he said.

The workers themselves had no doubt it was Mr Towers, above anyone else, who was responsible for their reprieve. "He has been a big saviour. He has given us hope from day one and I think there should be a Towers Day, rather than May Day," said one worker who recently returned to Longbridge from the Cowley plant.

Mike Ferris, who worked on the prototype new Mini, said: "He has been here before and people say he is one of us. He knows the cars and the workforce and he knows that we will do everything that is asked for."

Peter Logan, 42, a shop steward, said he had left staff on the shop floor in a state of shock. "We believed we were sunk under Alchemy and John Moulton but now we believe we have raised the Titanic," he said. Brian Thomas, a track worker, added: "I felt BMW had stabbed us in the back but finally they have turned round and given us the one thing that we really wanted. Today we are enjoying sweet victory but tomorrow we must start to make Rover a commercial success."

Despite the euphoria, there was a realisation that the long-term future of Longbridge was non-existent unless it produces a new car to replace existing Rover models. Andy Shaw, 32, a productivity engineer, said: "There's a feeling of joy but I don't know if we will be going through all this again in a couple of years. There's still going to be job losses here but at least if we get made redundant, there will be decent pay-offs, whereas it would have been the basic minimum under the alternative. Today is an end to the short-term uncertainty but we will only be OK in the long term if we get a new model."

There was a warm welcome among the crowd for the local MP, Richard Burden, but few workers felt the Government or Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, deserved any thanks.

Labour's vote in the area slumped in last week's local elections and some workers said they did not believe it would come back. Dave Shortt, a team leader on the MG, who has been at Longbridge for 16 years, said: "I have never seen anything like these past few weeks. Nobody is going to say, 'I am a working-class man and I will vote Labour' because when you ask what has the Government done for us, the answer is nothing."

The backlash against the Government was trivial compared with the feeling against BMW. Workers told how they had believed promises that BMW was at Longbridge for the long term and that their jobs were safe, so had bought houses and cars only to find that they could be made redundant within weeks.

Tony Sharpe, a Longbridge veteran with 23 years' service, said he believed BMW bought Rover with the intention of closing down a competitor. "They just wanted to get rid of us. They consistently asked us to give everything and gave us back nothing," he said.

Mr Towers was more conciliatory, refusing an invitation to criticise BMW overtly and, with a nod to the sun streaming down over Birmingham, said it was time to lift the clouds that had been hanging over Longbridge.

As celebrations continued at Q Gate, Mr Ferris added: "Absolutely everybody is in an up-beat mood. We have made it to the end of the rollercoaster ride of the last few weeks and months and now everybody can see that, like the weather, the future's sunny."

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