Workers marching to save jobs at Honda is a step in the right direction, but more support is needed, argues Richard Allday
As thousands of Honda workers, their families and supporters marched through the streets of Swindon on Saturday, it became clear that Honda’s proposal to close its Swindon factory has concentrated the concerns of thousands of trade union activists. Angered by the apparent apathy of the Tory government to the problems facing the manufacturing sector, brought into sharp focus by the threats to jobs in automotive manufacturing in particular (workers at Fords, Peugeot, Jaguar LandRover [JLR], Nissan, all face threats to job security), the response to the attack on jobs at Honda gives grounds for optimism.
The march – called by the South West Region of Unite – had delegations from every region of Unite in England, as well as the Welsh Region. It also had representatives from Honda’s plant in Ghent, Belgium, in a welcome sign of international solidarity. But equally significant was the support of other unions for the Honda Workers – the GMB, Unison, PCS, the FBU, all had banners or flags on the march, which in its composition was marvelously diverse, in age, in gender, in ethnicity. In a town that voted 55% “Leave” it was a clear signal that the anger that led to the Leave vote is not of itself divisive, and if offered a chance to strike a blow against injustice, ‘Leavers’ are as ready as anyone else to join forces. (Would that the organizers of the massive “Peoples Vote” march the other week had shown as much concern for the popular opposition to mass sackings! And no, Tom Watson was not seen at the march, or the rally, nor did he offer his support from the platform).
The march assembled at Swindon Football Club and was addressed by Len McLuskey, General Secretary of Unite, who pledged the union’s absolute commitment to support the Honda workers’ fight to keep the plant open. He spoke of the need for the campaign to bring in forces far wider than just Honda workers, emphasizing that to allow this plant to close increased the threat to every car plant in Britain, and the associated supply chains.
Steve Turner, Unite’s Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for the automotive sector, addressed the final rally. He spoke with passion and eloquence on the need for the union as a whole to step up to the challenge and re-emphasised the commitment pledged by McLuskey.
John Cooper (National Chair of Unite’s manufacturing sector, and Unite convenor at Peugeot’s Ellesmere Port plant) told the crowd that every other Unite-organised car factory had pledged their support to the campaign against closure.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Industry Secretary, likewise pledged the support of the Labour Party, and it is excellent to see shadow ministers supporting workers fighting to save their jobs. But we do need to be clear that, in the longer term, a radical reforming administration needs to heed the industry’s own assessment that the future of the internal combustion engine (ICE) – and that includes its hybrid forms – is bleak, and that the ‘personal owner’ fleet is expected to decline dramatically over the next 20 years. This means our members in the industry need an industrial strategy that promotes, develops, and invests in a climate-friendly transport sector that puts protection of jobs and the environment ahead of private commercial profit. Ford, Honda, BMW and the rest view both workers and the environment as incidental to their main aim – maximizing their profits. We need a government that, with forward planning and investment, seeks to protect both.
All in all, there were many promising signs of the support available to Honda workers in their fight against closure. But (isn’t there always a ‘but’) although Saturday demonstrated the anger, the widespread support, the awareness that we cannot allow Honda workers to fight this alone, this now needs to be turned into concrete expression. There is an urgent need for our senior reps right across manufacturing to meet together to discuss how to support Honda workers. At present, the announcement is too recent, the shock too great, for Honda reps to have developed a strategy of resistance to put to the workforce.
Until this happens, external support might only be verbal, although the possibility of the sector organising workplace collections, or even levies, to build resources for a campaign, must surely be on the agenda. This is not to answer an immediate, material, need – the resources of the national union can surely satisfy that in the immediate future - but it gives reps in the other plants the opportunity to raise the arguments for solidarity, at a very basic level (and initially involving very little cost). But Honda reps can use the widespread support to enhance the confidence of their fellow workers; if that confidence allows them to consider a collective response (no matter how small in the first instance), it helps build momentum, which is sorely needed at present.
We are nowhere near seeing Honda as a symbol of resistance (as, say, the Grunwick strikers were, back in the 70s) to May and her ‘Profit Trumps All’ ideology, but Saturday’s march showed me, at least, that a significant layer of the most forward-thinking activists in the trades unions are more than willing to take up the arguments – if they are put.
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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