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Proletarian issue 27 (December 2008)
Industry matters: chickens home to roost
Chickens home to roost

At the end of last year, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) warned that “2008 will be the first year for a decade that the engine of job creation will be spluttering right across the economy. This will be the worst year for jobs this decade and easily the worst since the Labour government came to power in 1997.”

At the time, such predictions were dismissed by some as overly gloomy. Notoriously, Brendan Barber’s New Year message to trade unionists held that “it is important that we do not talk ourselves into thinking the economic situation is worse than it is. The truth is that instability has not come from events in the real economy where people trade goods and services, but from the world of finance … The greatest threat would be to confuse the difficulties now being suffered by banks with the economic fundamentals.”

Now that those gloomy predictions have been shown to be, if anything, an underestimate of Britain’s economic woes – with the CIPD now reporting that the UK’s manufacturing sector shrunk for the sixth month in a row in October – Barber’s words ring hollow indeed. As recession bites, the weakness and division inflicted upon the working class by the social-democratic leadership behind which it remains locked are ever more galling.

Opportunism cowed before the capitalist onslaught

Attempts by the more militant unions, like the civil servants’ union PCS, to kick start a coordinated struggle in the public sector falter in the face of the failure of the TUC to offer the lead that it promised – and the difficulty that union militants themselves have in seeing beyond the perspective of left reformist campaigning around necessary but insufficient ‘solidarity’ slogans.

The 270,000 civil servants who were set to strike on 10 November, with plans for further industrial action over the next three months, were left high and dry by an eleventh-hour suspension, leaving a possible 10,000 jobs in the Ministry of Justice and 12,000 in the Department of Work and Pensions hanging in the balance.

Confirming this mood of defeatism, the NUT schoolteachers’ leadership opted to ignore the majority of its members who voted for industrial action over pay, on the grounds that the majority had been “too small”.

Whilst in boom times concessions could sometimes be won on the basis of demanding ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’, the capitalist game is played very differently when crisis hits, as ill-prepared workers are finding to their cost.

In November, BT announced that it would be shedding a massive 10,000 jobs, including several thousand in Britain. This represents 6 percent of BT’s global workforce. The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) has announced that it will go along with BT’s plan, as long as there are no compulsory redundancies.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) recently announced another 400 jobs soon to be axed at its factories in the Midlands and Merseyside, in addition to the 200 already announced in October, citing “the impact on demand of the wider economic downturn” (ie, the overproduction crisis). The India-based multinational Tata, which owns JLR, is already hated in Llanelli for having imposed week-long shut-downs with reduced pay at the Trostre tinplate works. Now JLR workers too are being ‘offered’ three months’ leave in exchange for a 20 percent pay cut so production levels can be cut.

According to a BBC report, this new wave of job losses follows “consultation with employee representatives and trades union officials”. It seems that the fire sale of these 600 jobs under a ‘voluntary’ redundancy scheme is to be arranged in conjunction with the union!

Meanwhile, manufacturing giant JCB, hit by the downturn in property and construction, has confronted its 2,500 workers at seven plants in England and Wales with a stark choice: either agree to work a four-day week and lose £50 a week, or lose 350 jobs. The GMBU failed to give a lead of any kind in resisting this crude blackmail. Instead they simply relayed the blackmailer’s message to the workforce, organised a ballot and recommended that they accept the lesser of two evils!

When the dazed workforce gave their assent, union official Keith Hodgkinson spoke as if a great victory had been achieved. “I am delighted that we have been able to save 350 jobs,” he said. “The short time is part of a worsening recession and these GMB members expect the government and the Bank of England to take the necessary steps to begin large-scale public works to at least slow the recession down and prevent it getting too deep.”

The message to workers seems to be: live on your knees and keep paying your subs to the Labour party.

Resisting ‘rationalisation’

A different spirit was in evidence over in Luton, however, where General Motors is trying a similar stunt. A leaflet inviting workers to a meeting supported by the local trades council reads thus:


“GM’s imposition of Down days at Luton will be a concern for workers at the plant. We know that GM would like to get away with cutting workers pay for non-productive days and so far the union has resisted this … When GM was making record profits car workers did not receive big pay increases and were told profits would be reinvested in the industry. Now the Bosses expect workers to pay for their greed and incompetence. The Union must continue to fight for full pay during Down days and prepare and organise from the bottom to the top of the Union to resist any threat to pay or jobs. The government should be told that they will face massive protests if thousands more jobs are allowed to go to the wall … We should call on the union to join up with other unions to build a movement to fight redundancies, cuts in pay, house repossessions and to start to build a world that does not rely on the waste and madness of capitalism to determine our future.”

Ford too, finding the level of demand for its cars too low to absorb production at existing levels, has announced temporary lay-offs for 800 of its staff at Bridgend over the Christmas and New Year period, with likely job losses to follow.

At the Bridgend plant, Ford’s response to market contraction has been to pour capital into ever more sophisticated machinery (£70m on a new generation of low CO2 petrol engines), whilst retrenching on labour costs. On a wider scale, this serves to intensify the long-term downward pressure on profit rates – capitalist concerns aim to reduce the levels of variable capital (labour power) in their individual concerns in order to reduce overheads, but the long-term effect on industry as a whole is to reduce profitability and reduce the pool of consumers (through unemployment).

But Ford is running into resistance at its Southampton plant, where it manufactures transit vans. After national pay talks broke down, with no commitment from Ford that Southampton would be making the new model planned for 2011, hundreds of workers came out on unofficial strike on 20 October, winning wide support from the local community.

Some Ford workers helped the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) produce a leaflet demanding retention of transit production in Southampton, better pay and no erosion of terms and conditions. The NSSN leaflet also called on the unions to organise a national demonstration in Southampton.

Such a spirit of resistance as is expressed by the Southampton and Luton militants, a spirit which cannot long be suppressed in the proletariat even in the darkest times of reaction, needs more than anything else the guidance and inspiration of a communist party. For the moment, however, left reformism largely rules the militant roost.

The challenge for communists is to give all practical support to that spirit of resistance, whilst never relenting in the fight against social democracy in its many guises.

Migrant workers

As reported previously, the struggle waged over the summer by cleaners on the London Underground, many of them migrant workers, for decent pay and fair treatment, won some significant concessions. However, two months after the promised 1 August deadline, a lot of those cleaners have yet to see the ‘London Living Wage’ appear in their pay packets.

Meanwhile, it is reported that those who took part in strike action are being targeted for immigration checks. One RMT rep has been suspended from duty and three union members have been deported as ‘illegal’ – ie, without residence papers.

This approach is also being used by Amey, who are using the same racist bullying to resist unionisation amongst the largely Latin American cleaning workforce at the National Physical Laboratories in London.

Last year, Amey staff were invited to a supposed ‘training session’, only to find themselves locked in with officials from the Home Office! As a result of this ambush, three were deported, again for lack of official papers. Now Amey has sacked five union activists for “damaging the company image”, ie, for circulating a leaflet drawing attention to the continued bullying by the local site manager.

Such instances of racist bullying are not just the excesses of a few ‘rogue’ employers. Rather, they are acting in line with an agenda which is laid down at government level, with ministers supposedly ‘dealing’ with the financial crisis and recession by ‘getting tough’ on immigrants.

Immigration minister Phil Woolas blathered to the Times that “It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder … This government isn’t going to allow the population to go up to 70 million.”

Former minister Frank Field was quick to draw the ‘hands off our jobs’ moral, saying that “When we’re moving into a recession, the length of which we do not yet know, the immigration policy suitable for a boom is totally unsuitable for a recession.”

Whilst this will make little practical difference to population flows in and out of the UK (with migrant labour in any case likely to be less drawn to an economy in recession and with growing unemployment), this racist badgering is designed to divide the working class and deter it from identifying its real enemy, capitalism.

Defending the rights of migrant workers is central to defending the working class as a whole. For unions still to be turning over their members’ subs to Labour, which abroad is conducting genocidal wars and at home is inciting hatred against ‘foreign’ workers, dishonours and debilitates the whole working class.

Struggle to break the link with Labour!
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