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20,000 demand Diageo rethink on Johnnie Walker plant closure

The first thing which greets you when you arrive in Kilmarnock is a large sign: “Welcome to Kilmarnock.

Keep Johnnie Walker Here”.

It’s an indication of the passion felt in the Ayrshire town – an unwavering determination to fight to the bitter end the planned 700 job cuts at the town’s Johnnie Walker bottling plant.

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It’s hardly surprising feelings run high. The famous striding man of Johnnie Walker whisky is part of the heritage of a town built on textiles and engineering and who has been there since 1820.

His absence will be sorely felt. That feeling explains why around 20,000 people, a number which is almost half the population of the town itself, picked up their placards and hit the cobbles yesterday for the mass march and rally.

Plant workers marched alongside former colleagues as they joined figures from across Scotland’s political spectrum to walk from Howard Park through the town centre to Kay Park where they were addressed by First Minister Alex Salmond.

For once, political differences were put aside as figures including Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, local Labour MP Des Browne and Scottish Liberal Democrat Ross Finnie joined people of all ages in the colourful parade.

Countless people gave the event a sense of occasion by dressing as the famous Striding Man and lent the march a carnival atmosphere.

Bouncy castles, people tapping their feet to live music and children queuing for ice cream in the July sunshine – at times you could almost be forgiven for thinking this was an annual summer fete.

But the message among the crowd was clear: as well as safeguarding the 700 jobs, the march was about securing the future of Kilmarnock. Without Diageo, many of the campaigners claimed, the town will face a future of decay.

It will, they say, become nothing more than a ghost town. As many of the placards stated: “Don’t Let Johnnie Walk Out on Kilmarnock”.

One Diageo worker, who refused to give his name for fear of recriminations from Diageo management, summed up the mood. He said: “If Johnnie Walker closes, they’d be as well shutting Kilmarnock. It will be devastating for the town.

“I’ve worked there for over 30 years, since I left school. Where am I going to get another job? There will be 700 other people in the same boat, we’ll all be out there looking for a job.

“There are people in there,” he added,” pointing to the factory gates as we marched by, “with entire families who work together. They are going to lose everything, even their houses. It’s terrible.

“It’s the fact that Johnnie Walker was established in Kilmarnock and they are taking him away. It’s like taking Rabbie Burns away from Ayr.”

As the march snaked its way through the town, it became clear just how important the bottling plant is to Kilmarnock’s economic future.

There is no shortage of “To Let” signs or shops and businesses which have long been boarded up, victims of not only the recession but of a town struggling to keep its head above water.

As one worker put it: “It’s absolutely devastating and not just for us but for the whole community. If this goes, Kilmarnock’s dead.

“Everybody used to say if you can’t get a job anywhere else, Walker’s are always

starting folk. That was a given. If they take that away there will be nothing left.”

As if to illustrate the point, at the head of the march were four pall bearers, each bearing the weight of a black coffin inscribed with “RIP Kilmarnock”.

As the march reached the gates of the bottling plant, there was a brief pause and a moment of silent reflection.

A small group of staff, looking on while enjoying their lunch break, applauded the marchers as they strode past. One worker told us: “This is brilliant. It shows the town knows that if this place closes, so does the town. With 700 wage packets gone from here the retail industry will collapse.

“And it’s not just 700 jobs at risk, there are hundreds more. The firm which makes our work wear, they’ll go and there will be a lot more.”

Despite the serious message, the protest was good natured and supported by all members of the community.

Many marchers were delighted to see the presence of the entire first team of Kilmarnock Football Club, led by manager Jim Jeffries. He said: “We know the people who could lose their jobs, many of them are supporters. They come along and support us on a Saturday, it’s only right we come along and support them.

“We’re here to get the message across that we’re right behind the campaign.”

The over-riding mood of the day was best summed up by Councillor Douglas Reid, leader of East Ayrshire Council, during his address to the crowds gathered at Kay Park.

With all the conviction of a man who is well aware he’s fighting for Kilmarnock’s survival, he said: “I want to tell Diageo: you might have a good go at trying to kill off Killie, but what you’ll end up doing is killing Johnnie Walker whisky.

“We’re Killie ‘til we die!”

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