The announcement of lay-offs in the automotive industry demands an effective response from Britain’s labour movement, writes Richard Allday in the first of his monthly series on industrial and trade union issues
PSA (the owner of the one-time GM plants in the UK) has announced up to a thousand job losses at its Merseyside plant, leaving a further 1,200 workers worrying about their futures. Ford has announced 1,000 redundancies at its Bridgend plant; Jaguar Land Rover is making threatening noises about workers’ futures at its UK plants; Toyota and Nissan have publicly stated that their future investment in the UK is under consideration.
It is too easy to pin this on Brexit alone. There are many other factors involved, including the drop in Chinese sales for JLR, GM’s global strategy – it has announced its intention to axe 14,000 jobs worldwide - and the impact of the bad publicity recently surrounding diesel engines per se, but also car companies struggling to accommodate to the projected massive increase in electric cars – projected to rise from the global sales figures of 1.1m in 2017 to 11m by 2025 – and unit costs to drop below that of ICEs (Internal Combustion Engines) with the increasing volume production. All of this comes on top of the industry’s belief it is fast approaching peak demand for private cars, certainly in Europe and North America, and a hugely diminished market in the near future.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a hard Tory Brexit, with the likely imposition of 10% tariffs and the consequent £2,000+ increase to the unit price tag, only adds to the pressures driving job losses in the industry.
Which is why it seems crazy to me that our side’s response has so far not been proportionate. A purely industrial response (i.e. industrial action) is unlikely to be on the cards, for a number of reasons. Ford has long led the way in preferring to ‘buy out’ jobs by highly attractive redundancy offers, finding this more cost-effective than the head-on brutality of unilaterally closing plants. Other motor manufacturers have drawn similar conclusions, although there are limits to its efficacy - GM have so far only attracted around 2,000 volunteers (only a quarter of the numbers they are looking for) at its Lordstown, Ohio, facility. Add to this carrot, the stick of austerity, frozen wages, economic uncertainty and (whatever the government statistics say) the lack of employment prospects, and it is not surprising there is little enthusiasm for an industrial fightback. (Although, ironically, the lack of alternative good jobs in the area may persuade many workers to look down the line, and wonder: if they sell their jobs, where will their kids work?)
But at least as pertinent is that the problem is unlikely to be resolved purely at the industrial level – which is not to allow the employers to duck the responsibility, but to recognise that the abdication of responsibility for any industrial strategy by the current ‘government’ (I use the word loosely) is a prime factor in the employers’ considerations.
The revelations this week of the back-door bungs on offer from HMG, together with ‘assurances’ they can not back up, have only served to heighten the reluctance of car-makers to make significant investment in the future of the UK auto industry (and UK manufacturing in general). I mean, if you can’t even be sure that the bribes will be paid on time, what do you base your investment decisions on?
Which leaves us with the necessity of a political response. I do not mean ‘questions in the house’, or Select Committees raising ‘concerns’. I mean direct protest, by the real people affected by this incompetence. I mean articulating the anger and frustration felt by millions, as their jobs and futures are treated as betting chips in the Tories’ gamble to cling onto power.
It does seem to me that the unions could fill Downing Street with members angry at the damage to their communities. They need to make it public, that May is clinging on for dear life to her job, at the cost of thousands of our jobs. I am convinced they would receive enthusiastic support not just from members in manufacturing in general, but from every section of workers. There is no doubt that the Peoples’ Assembly movement, the National Shop Stewards Network, Momentum and a host of other organisations would fully support them. The benefit to the unions would be on several levels: it would allow their members and activists to vent their anger, directing it at the class enemy, instead of looking for a scapegoat; it provides the membership with the knowledge that the union is doing something – but is hindered by the complete abstention of the government; it heads off any attempt by the right (or far right) to exploit peoples’ worries; and it helps build the pressure for something that is desperately needed – the election of a government that is not completely distracted by internal divisions.
We need public meetings in every constituency arguing “It's their jobs or ours. Kick the B******s out!” But this will only happen if there is a concrete focus for it. And it strikes me, our brothers and sisters in the car industry could provide that focus.
This is not a pro- or anti-Brexit argument, it is an anti-Tory argument. When even the Minister for Industry (Greg Clarke) is reported as saying that he cannot develop an industrial strategy because it is always judged, not on its merits, but on how it plays to this, that, or the other faction in the Tory infighting, then it is clear that we are facing a government paralysed by its internal conflicts – at the expense of the rest of us.
The only solution I can see is to force a general election and get rid of this apology for an administration, If they will not go willingly - and they clearly won’t - then we have to build the pressure to the point where they can’t duck it any longer.
After all, May is keen enough for elections in Venezuela. It's only when her job is at risk that she’s not so keen!
The yellow vests in France have managed to tap into the anger of the “left behind” – and forced concessions. We need to step up to the plate here, because if we don’t, the forces of the right will. We need to prove that workers, and their organisations, both share the anger that led to the ‘Leave’ vote, and can point the way forward.
The problems in the automotive industry go far deeper than Brexit (though a no-deal Brexit will massively amplify them), and require a proper industrial strategy to resolve them. The same applies to housing, health, education, care for the elderly … you name it, and this government has ignored it.
Britain is broken, and this shower cannot fix it. So let’s shove them aside and let someone else have a go. Before it is too late.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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