Struggles at Airbus: The beginnings of class solidarity

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Faced with the threat of 1600 job cuts in the Airbus Broughton and Bristol plants, and with the elimination of profit-related bonuses, thousands of workers at the Broughton plant in Wales took unofficial strike action in the last week of March. These walk-outs follow similar outbreaks of anger by workers at Airbus factories in Germany and France.

By all accounts the strikes were spontaneous and saw a real divide between the workers and the trade unions. The initial strike, on 23 March, took place after workers demanded a factory gate meeting half way through their morning shift and were not happy with the responses they got from union stewards. The union later announced that they were not supporting the action and had urged their members to return to work. Unions condemned further walkouts on the following Monday and Tuesday.

The anger of the workers has similar roots across Europe. Having been told that they were a ‘flagship’ company, a model of cross-Europe co-operation, having made extraordinary advances in productivity, they are now being told that the company is in crisis and 10,000 jobs have got to in Britain, France, Germany and Spain – a 20% reduction in the workforce. One German worker at the Varel Airbus plant put it succinctly: “we used to build 200 planes a year when we were doing great and now we are even making 438 a year and it’s still the end”.

All sorts of explanations have been put forward to explain the problems at Airbus. Private bosses blame the state for interfering too much; the parties of the left say the state should interfere more. The French press says that the German state has taken too much out of the industry. In Spain, workers are told that it’s not too bad there because the Spanish factories are more competitive. The unions everywhere blame bad management by the bosses. And all of them blame competition from America in the shape of Boeing, whose planes are outselling Airbus.

They’ll say anything but admit the basic truth that the crisis at Airbus is part of a much more general reality – the economic crisis of the capitalist system, which everywhere is faced with a glutted market and everywhere has the same response: make the workers pay through job cuts, wage freezes, cuts in bonuses, ‘outsourcing’ to areas where the price of labour is cheaper. That’s why, despite its apparent success over Airbus, Boeing has also just announced 7,000 job cuts. And that’s why, for the workers, the answer to these difficulties doesn’t reside in making sacrifices and sweating harder. At Varel productivity more than doubled and “it’s still the end”. Airbus workers all over Europe could tell the same story.

For real internationalism

The trade unions, who have participated up to the hilt in these productivity increases, are now being forced by the obvious discontent among the workforce to put themselves forward as champions of the class struggle. Following the initial strikes in France and Germany, the unions organised a Europe-wide day of action on 16 March with official stoppages in most Airbus plants and demonstrations in Hamburg, Toulouse, Chester and elsewhere.

At first sight this seems to be an expression of real workers’ internationalism: simultaneous strikes and demos in several European countries. And who else could have the means to coordinate things on such a wide scale except the trade unions?

But look a little closer. The ‘Europe-wide solidarity’ boasted by the unions does not call for the international solidarity of all workers in all countries: it calls for solidarity between Airbus workers in order to come up with a better plan for Airbus. In the end it is entirely in agreement with the outlook of the Airbus bosses – that Airbus should be more profitable than Boeing, or any of its other international competitors.

And the moment the union machinery took charge of the struggle, the moment union ‘organisation’ took the place of the original workers’ spontaneity, these false perspectives were immediately grafted onto the struggle.

That isn’t to say that workers can do without organisation. But it has to be organisation by themselves and for themselves. The workers at Broughton took an important first step by demanding an immediate mass meeting. They took an important second step by deciding to strike without any regard for the official union rigmarole of ballots. But they didn’t take a third, decisive step: making mass meetings the sole authority for deciding whether to stay out or go back, for organising pickets, for sending delegations to other plants and workplaces and calling for solidarity action.

Given the huge financial and organisational apparatus in the hands of the unions, it’s not surprising that workers should hesitate about taking such steps. Especially when they are clearly facing an attack on their living standards that is continental in scale.

But workers at Airbus are not alone. They face the same problems as numerous other manufacturing workers whose industries are being decimated; as public sector workers whose jobs are being cut or made more precarious and whose wages are being clamped. That’s why solidarity action cannot only be conceived as joint action by Airbus workers, but also and above all as solidarity between Airbus workers and workers in other sectors of the economy. For Airbus workers, the extension of the struggle doesn’t just mean spreading the struggle from one Airbus plant to another, but going to the nearest car plant, hospital, post office, school or hospital. In all these sectors, discontent is simmering, and sometimes breaks out to the surface, as with the postal workers of Edinburgh who were staging wildcat strikes at almost the same time at the Broughton workers. These are all expressions of the same underlying movement of resistance to the sacrifices demanded by an absurd social system. Amos 31/3/7

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