The occupation by workers at Harland & Wolff shows that manufacturing workers whose jobs are at risk can fight back, argues Richard Allday
The disaster that is the Tory “industrial strategy” rolls on. In automotive manufacturing alone, we have seen the intended closure of Honda Swindon, with 4,000 jobs threatened, Jaguar LandRover threatening to pull forward investment, the proposed closure of Delphi Diesels in Sudbury, Ford stating its intention to close its Bridgend plant and the threatened relocation of its R&D facility to Europe.
This week, we saw PSA (Peugeot, the owners of GM’s erstwhile plants at Luton and Ellesmere Port) openly stating that the threat to Ellesmere Port – only recently averted as PSA promised to produce the new Astra there - is back on the table if Johnson’s dream No Deal Brexit goes through. John Cooper, Unite’s senior steward at Ellesmere Port, gave a sterling interview to BBC North West, in which he pointed to the devastation that would be caused if Peugeot closed the plant, and promised that they (the Unite-organised workforce, and the wider union) would not just sit back and go gently; that PSA could expect a real fight if they tried to kill Ellesmere Port. There are over 1,000 workers employed at Ellesmere Port, and tens of thousands dependent, directly or indirectly, on the plant remaining open.
Now, 160 miles away as the crow flies, in Belfast, the workforce at Harland and Wolff has occupied the workplace in protest at its proposed closure as the company goes into liquidation. Harland and Wolff used to be one of the giants of British shipbuilding, employing in its heyday, thousands of highly skilled workers. Its iconic status was equal to that of the Clyde shipbuilding industry in Scotland, and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation of the early 1970s was one of the high points of workers refusing to accept being sacrificed on the Tory altar of ‘profit at all costs’.
The UCS occupation was a beacon for the whole British labour movement, a sign that defeat was not inevitable, that workers’ actions, and (above all) solidarity could stem the tide of closure after closure.
In one sense, the parallel is mistaken – Harland and Wolff ‘s workforce, at 130, is a tiny fraction of what it used to be, is dwarfed by automotive manufacturing, and doesn’t even rely on shipbuilding for its lifeblood any more. In an ironic twist, the main work at present is producing mega-blades for turbines to use the renewable energy latent in the world’s oceans. Just at the time that the government is being urged to recognise the world’s climate crisis, this bunch of buffoons is standing idly by, fiddling as the world burns. In another sense, the workers at Harland and Wolff have laid down a challenge, not just to the employer, or Stormont, or the Tory incompetents; they have laid down a challenge to the British labour movement.
They have made clear we don’t have to just roll over and accept whatever is thrown at us. There is always the option of fighting. In their words, if you fight, you might not win; but if you don’t fight, you can’t win.
The same city, Belfast, led the way 10 years ago in resisting Ford’s attempts to sacrifice its workers to the chase for profit when the Visteon workers occupied their plant in the face of the threat of closure. Their act of resistance led to the plants at Enfield and Basildon taking up the fight as well. They did not succeed in keeping the factories open, but they did succeed in forcing the company into compensation figures millions of dollars more than they had intended. And Fords’s plans for further attacks on their UK workforce were put on hold while they factored in the cost of beating organised opposition in a far more confident workforce.
Unite, the union that organises the Harland and Wolff workforce, has come out in strong support of their members on the ground. General Secretary Len McCluskey has lauded the spirit of the workforce, Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner has promised ‘to leave no stone unturned’ in pressuring cabinet ministers to save the yard – including nationalising the company to secure its long term future. It is excellent to see a major union supporting workers challenging the very basis of the private ownership of capital; but more than warm words will be needed to change a system so skewed in favour of the rich. That is why every manufacturing plant in the UK should be sending messages of support to their brothers and sisters in Harland and Wolff (messages can be sent to the Regional Secretary at [email protected]) and engaging their members in discussing what lessons we can learn from the Belfast workers, and how we can use their example to protect jobs in the here and now.
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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