Rover crisis: A long wait for the news from Bavaria

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The Independent Online
FROM THE outside, it looked like any Friday at one of Britain's biggest car plants. The shift workers poured in and out of the many gates of Rover's Longbridge Works, huge lorries delivered parts and by yesterday evening the site was largely empty - for there is no Friday night shift.

But inside the works it had been one long day of waiting, hoping and uncertainty while the board of the parent company met in Munich and finally sealed the fate of of BMW's chairman, Bernd Pischetsrieder, the greatest supporter of keeping Longbridge open. He and his biggest opponent, the deputy chairman, Wolfgang Reitzle, were both removed from the company.

Longbridge workers heading home earlier were asking journalists outside the plant what the latest news was from Bavaria - they had been told nothing by their own managers.

John Partridge, Midlands regional secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union - the largest at Rover - said last night: "Understandably, morale at Longbridge is very low amid all the frenzied speculation. You can almost see the question-mark hanging over the works."

He said the plant's 14,000 workers had desperately wanted Mr Pischetsrieder to keep his job. He was seen as the man who guaranteed the owner's adherence to last autumn's deal to save the plant, in return for new flexible working arrangements and higher productivity promised by the unions. "He is the architect of that agreement to invest in Longbridge," said Mr Partridge. Now they feared the works on Birmingham's southern fringe may face drastic cut-backs or closure.

Rover's sales have sunk to half the level of a year ago. The 11,200 vehicles sold last month represent 4.6 per cent of the UK market, and its losses are costing BMW dearly.

One worker, who asked not to be named, said: "It's the end of this place ... because he [Mr Pischetsrieder] was the only one who supported us through all the difficulties." Another said: "I've heard ... the only two places BMW is interested in are Cowley [Oxford] and Solihull, Birmingham."

Others complained about the uncertainty hanging over them and management's inability to give them any reassurances about the future. Night shifts were ended for several weeks at Christmas but have since been reinstated.

Roger Lyons, secretary of the Manufacturing Science and Finance union, said British unions would be "relieved" that Mr Reitzle had not taken over, but that the new man's views on investment at Rover were unknown. "We will be seeking an early meeting with Professor [Joachim] Milberg," Mr Lyons said. "We don't believe a change in personnel should in any way affect a done deal." Union sources described Professor Milberg as a well- respected, long-serving BMW executive who would be a "safe pair of hands."