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Proletarian issue 17 (April 2007)
Industry matters: Airbus, Norgren, Corus cuts
Airbus

The multinational European consortium EADS announced at the close of February that it intends to cut some 16,000 jobs, including 1,500 in the UK. Whilst the bigger blow will be to the working class in Germany and France, where the job losses total respectively 4,300 and 3,700, British workers in the UK-based Airbus end of operations in Chester and Bristol will be looking to their unions to give some leadership.

However, the official union view on the mixed fortunes of the British aircraft construction industry is hard to distinguish from the view of the capitalists who run it. When ‘defence’ giant BAe Systems announced recently that it had raised its profits from £761m to £1.054bn, AMICUS national officer Bernie Hamilton welcomed this glittering arms trade prize in the following terms: “We look forward to working constructively with the company to ensure that the profits are shared with the workforce in the coming pay round.” (Morning Star, 23 February 2007)

Now that the overspend crisis hitting the planned next generation A380 aircraft has reminded everybody that the global overcapacity in aircraft construction creates losers as well as winners, with EADS currently obliged to wipe out surplus capacity and slash jobs to hold its own against Boeing, the same Bernie Hamilton talks blandly about “collectively” working with the company to achieve “non-compulsory” redundancies, leaving the shop floor to grumble along about “unfair” US state subsidies tilting the market.

The real state of affairs was spelt out by Paul Dowdell, an economist from the University of the West of England who takes a particular interest in defence matters. He reminds us that “the bosses at the parent company, EADS, are unlikely to be bothered about the impact of moving work elsewhere on the Bristol community. EADS is a global company which is interested in the pursuit of profits – the impact on Filton of not investing in the composite plant won’t be a consideration.” (Bristol Evening Post, 13 February 2007)

Telling the government to keep jobs in Bristol, or in Britain, or in Europe, will have zero impact on the iron laws of economics, which compel monopoly capitalism to ride roughshod over any and every obstacle that stands in the way of maximising profits. However, encouraging workers to fall in line behind a partnership of unions and local capitalist management in a futile ‘British jobs for British workers’ campaign will have a real and damaging impact on the international solidarity of the working class, putting the blame on to ‘foreigners’ of one kind or another and distracting attention from the real villain of the piece, capitalism.

Instead of encouraging workers to identify with the fortunes of ‘their’ company, unions should be mobilising the workforce to demand zero redundancies, acting in concert with the unions in Germany, France, Spain and elsewhere. If Airbus objects that it cannot deliver job security for all its employees, then let AMICUS and the TGWU campaign to force the state to take responsibility and secure those jobs through nationalisation. If it is deemed impossible to save all the jobs, then let the unions campaign for all those made redundant to receive ongoing compensatory benefits set at a level no lower than that of previous average earnings. And if it is objected that capitalism cannot afford these temporary solutions to its own permanent contradictions, then let the unions thank capitalism for this lesson, and campaign in earnest for the end of the wages system.

This is not happening, despite the fact that, for example, the Airbus plant at Filton, Bristol (due to lose 750 jobs) is very solidly unionised, with AMICUS representing the more skilled and TGWU the less skilled workers. Over issues like the allocation of overtime, wage-bargaining and health and safety, the unions are a force to be reckoned with. The unions are consulted on many aspects of the everyday running of the plant, reps are given time off to do their union work, and on-site office facilities are made freely available.

Yet the unspoken quid pro quo of all this seeming largesse is that the unions are bound never to look higher than the question of negotiating the best deal for the sale of their members’ labour power that the market will bear. At a push, it is accepted that they may put up some resistance to the imposition of redundancies. But even in that case, it is more often a case of pushing for ‘non-compulsory’ job cuts – ie, through ‘natural wastage’ or the lure of a redundancy package. What the unions must on no account do is question the fundamental ‘right’ of capitalism to keep the working class bound to the wages system, no matter how anarchic and destructive capitalist commodity production becomes.

In Bristol’s Filton works, the lack of enthusiasm inspired by the union’s leadership was reflected in the poor turn out of staff at a lunchtime demo against the cuts, in spite (or because?) of the provision by local management of time off for staff to participate! Clearly ‘British jobs for British workers’ is not a perspective that is felt to pose any threat to capitalism.

By contrast, at the Airbus plant at Chester, where workers staged a spontaneous walk-out in protest at the withdrawal of an annual bonus and the imposition of new shift patterns, action was taken in spite of the union. Workers could not stomach being told by Airbus that the problems on the new A380 passenger plane necessitated the workers’ bonus being axed, whilst the managers’ bonuses were delivered unscathed. By refusing to carry the can for the failures of capitalism and walking off the job in defiance of the labour laws, they gave a salutary lesson to their own more ‘law-abiding’ leadership, stuck fast in the ‘respectable’ embrace of the imperialist Labour party. The fact that Amicus and TGWU have now amalgamated into one enormous union does nothing to loosen this dead man’s embrace.

The guarantee that the reformist boundary will never be crossed is the binding hand and foot of the trade unions to the Labour party and social democracy. The result is not merely that the unions fail to become schools for socialism; objectively, they function as schools of opportunism. That is why the most urgent campaign to which all militant trade unionists should commit is the campaign to break the link with Labour.

Norgren

One hundred and sixty five jobs are threatened by the planned closure of the Norgren engineering works in Shipston. News coverage has tended to focus on the traditional British character of the company’s origins, with the former boss from the full-employment 50s and 60s remembered as a ‘father figure’ who alternated visits to the sick with summary dismissals on a whim. Mergers in the 70s and 80s saw Shipston marginalised, with the HQ shifting elsewhere and much of the work relocated internationally. The workforce has shrunk from a high of 500 to just 165 permanent workers, and now these too face redundancy.

A comrade who attended the 24 March rally in Shipston reported that this was a well attended protest, gave due credit to Amicus for having organised the event and was cheered that unions in Sweden and Germany had sent messages of support. But then social democracy reared its ugly head. Amicus regional secretary Terry Pyle “was at pains to declare his long and fervent support for ‘New Labour’, apparently failing to connect that their record on manufacturing job losses was abysmal”. Meanwhile, all the local MPs, Labour included, “were unwilling to offer any support, let alone do anything”.

As with Airbus, what workers urgently require is a clear explanation of the overproduction crisis of imperialism, which is driving monopoly capitalism to destroy surplus capacity and trample over people’s livelihoods, whether by shifting jobs from one part of the UK to another, exporting jobs altogether, or importing cheap migrant labour. Instead, all workers are offered is cheap nostalgia about the paternalistic ‘good old days’ of British industry, washed down with a large dose of chauvinism against all the ‘foreigners’ undermining it.

An Amicus leaflet, bemoaning the “continuing flow of UK jobs abroad”, points to “over one million UK jobs lost in under a decade” and admonishes workers to “Think! It could be your job next.” So what are workers advised to do about this state of affairs? Why, “ask your MP what they are doing to stop UK jobs going abroad” and demand that action be taken by the government to “turn the tide”.

These latter day Canutes will of course do nothing whatever to “turn the tide” of capital concentrating into ever fewer monopolist hands through ever-more porous borders. What they can realistically hope to achieve, however, is to confine workers to a reformist campaign of letter writing and petitioning of parliamentary cretinism. Worse, their misleadership aspires to “turn the tide” of workers’ anger away from capitalism itself and towards ‘unpatriotic’ fat cats and generally all things ‘foreign’.

Corus

Meanwhile, news comes from our Welsh comrades that the Corus plant at Trostre, Llanelli, recently bought out by the Indian firm Tata for £5.75bn, is going to shut down for two weeks in April, during which period wages are to be slashed by half. This effective lock-out is to be imposed in response to a fall in demand for tinplate.

Workers fear that this temporary closure may presage permanent closure further down the line. Our Welsh comrades plan to write a leaflet analysing these developments and steering workers clear of reformist and chauvinist distortions.

As workers in Wales are regaled with another bourgeois election charade for the Assembly in May, the communist message to workers is clear: it is capitalism that must be made to pay for the consequences of the failure to organise production in a rational way. By failing to address this central question, all the bourgeois parties conspire to disenfranchise the workers whose interests they pretend to champion.

Voting for any of the bourgeois parties (not least the ones self-described as ‘socialist’) will not advance the working class one step. What is needed is the rebuilding of communist leadership in the working class, step by step, in the teeth of social democracy.
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