Miners flock to the aid of their old kitchen comrades

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The Independent Online
The well-heeled villagers of Croxton, rural Cambridgeshire, have never seen anything like it. First came a rag-tag platoon of retired miners from north Derbyshire who set up camp outside the rolling acres of Croxton Park Estate. Then came the security staff, in paramilitary-style boiler- suits, who patrolled the perimeters of the ground, stopping occasionally to film the erstwhile activities of the pitmen.

The ex-miners were there to show solidarity with 350 strikers at Magnet Kitchens' Factory in deepest industrial Darlington. The security men were to protect the interests of Alan Bowkett, who lives in Georgian splendour in the parklands and who is chief executive of Berisford, the company which owns the plant in Darlington.

Yesterday the former colliers turned up with a flock of chickens, claiming they were to set up a farm not far from the estate. The ex-miners had been threatened with legal action for allegedly establishing an unlawful secondary picket line outside Mr Bowkett's property. They were also told they may be in breach of "stalking" laws, passed largely to prevent deranged men pursuing frightened women. So the unionists searched for land near Croxton to establish a chicken farm which, they contend, was perfectly legal. Mysteriously, they were gazumped every time they were about to complete a purchase, until they found a landowner prepared to rent out a field. While they erected placards outside the field claiming Mr Bowkett's "Chickens Had Come To Roost", pickets from the Magnet plant distributed leaflets in the village.

Under the headline "Magnet Kitchen A Company of Shame", the pickets explained the goings-on to the villagers. After a three-year pay freeze the workers asked for a 3-per-cent rise, which the company awarded to 200 employees but offered nothing to the other 150. The workers walked out and after 12 days all 350 were dismissed. That was 17 months ago, since when the Darlington factory has been picketed constantly.

The former workers were incensed by a pounds 125,000 pay increase received by Mr Bowkett, already on pounds 321,620. They say it would have cost pounds 114,000 a year to settle the dispute. The company recently offered pounds 300,000 to the dismissed workers for retraining. Union leaders denounced it as derisory.

Terry Butkeraitis, former vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers in Derbyshire and one of the aspiring chicken farmers, said he and his colleagues would stick by the Magnet workers for as long as it took. "They helped us during the miners' strike with food and clothes, so we are repaying a debut of honour."

The Darlington men expressed disappointment with the Labour government and in particular Tony Blair, whose Sedgefield home is seven miles from the Magnet plant. Mr Bowkett yesterday argued that the dispute arose largely from inter-union rivalry.