Mahle strike

Factory workers in Kilmarnock are ready to escalate their pay dispute with the prestigious automotive firm, reports James Black

Workers who produce materials used in the car industry, including in the engines of Formula One and NASCAR vehicles, took a third day of strike action at the Mahle Engine Systems UK Kilmarnock factory yesterday. With a strong picket at the gates from 7am right through the day, production has stopped entirely inside the plant due to the strike of around 130 workers, or around 80% of the workforce.

Strike action began on Tuesday 16 May, following management’s refusal to honour a collective agreement over a pay top-up that should have been applied to all grades but has instead only been handed to the highest skilled workers. Currently, workers are out every Tuesday and Thursday indefinitely, and welcome picket-line visits for support.

The clad-alloy and Sinter materials produced in the factory are part of a global supply chain to sister Mahle facilities, ranging across the US, Mexico, Italy, Slovakia, and beyond. Hence, as one shop steward emphasised, the impact of the strike is significant, with factory orders ‘backing up’ on top of an existing backlog. 

Workers on the picket line are confident they can win the dispute, with the strike ‘absolutely solid’. Accordingly, the union has now issued paperwork to the employer signalling an escalation to three days’ strike action per week, from the current two days of stoppage.

Since the action began, factory management has contacted the union to offer a 3% pay increase to the workers on grades 2, 3, 4, and 5, which has been rejected by the strikers, who want the 6.8% top-up handed to grade 1 workers to be applied across the board. Workers are being well sustained by the union’s basic strike pay, and reps say management needs to come forward with a ‘serious’ offer if they want to see an end to the dispute.

The resoluteness of the Mahle workers in demanding a proper pay uplift is not surprising given shop stewards tell us that remuneration has been between 8-10% lower than the industry average. In fact, this has been the cause of significant staff-turnover problems for management, precipitating the concession on pay made to the most skilled workers.

One standout discussion from the picket line is how morale has been raised by solidarity visits from local postal and rail workers, teachers, and binmen who have recently been on strike. Notably, Mahle workers have previously been to support those same workers on their picket lines, and there is the sense of some deeper class connections being made.

Finally, it is worth putting the dispute in some context. This factory is a longstanding and important site of employment in the Riccarton area of Kilmarnock, with Mahle running it since the 2000s, and other automotive manufacturers in prior decades. Shop steward Peter Mabon has been working at the plant for 34 years, and his father (now retired) was on the floor for forty years. In the middle of the last century, thousands of workers were employed on the site.

Today, the sunk-in investment in expensive machinery and skills constitute a strong defence against these jobs being ‘shipped abroad’, say shop stewards. So there is no cause for hesitation among the workers currently taking strike action. Yet, with the transition to electric vehicles in the coming years and the necessary adjustments to production, reps note that in the long run there will need to be an even bigger fight to keep these engineering jobs in Kilmarnock.

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