We won't go quietly, say 80,000 Rover workers

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The Independent Online

The banner was bold. "Tony Blair - if we lose our jobs, you'll lose yours." Just behind it, among the 80,000 marchers assembled in the centre of Birmingham yesterday, was an effigy of the Prime Minister in BMW overalls. Someone was stabbing him in the back with a cardboard axe, a sign of the betrayal felt by many of those present.

This was the biggest demonstration in Birmingham since the 1970s - and the largest mass protest since the days when the miners took on the Thatcher government.

At the Masshouse Circus assembly point there was no escaping the symbolism of the skyline: cranes, factory chimneys and gas towers bearing witness to the place of heavy industry, and car manufacturing in particular, as foundation stones of West Midlands life. The fear that drove people of all ages on to the streets was that if BMW sells Rover, as it plans to, up to 50,000 workers could lose their jobs. Not just at the Longbridge plant, whose workers turned out en masse, but at many other businesses that depend on supplying the manufacturer, or on the workers spending their wages.

"When the docks closed Liverpool was decimated, and it ain't got over it yet," said Bob Jones, of King's Norton. "The people of Birmingham don't want to go through that. They just want to go on as they are but, if you wake us up like this, the march will just be the start."

Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers' Union, which organised the march, said: "BMW has accepted the hospitality of the West Midlands community and then decided it should just walk away. It has to accept that it has some responsibility."

Sometimes such marches have a carnival atmosphere, as families come together to make their point and find themselves smiling at the unfamiliarity of protesting in the street. Not yesterday. The bagpipes were mournful.

However, Tony Woodley, a TGWU negotiator who has been talking to BMW, promised: "We're not going quietly, we are united to tell them they've got to negotiate a deal that we, the workers and the British public, are ready to accept - not the sell-out that's on the table. Until we get that, Mr BMW, you will get no peace."