BMW’s decision to break up the Rover Group is a massive blow to the working class, with some 9,000 job losses expected at the Longbridge plant and up to 50,000 jobs to be lost throughout the region. Since BMW bought Rover in 1994 it has pumped in £3bn into the group, but the losses have only mounted, totalling £647m in 1998. In response the bosses announced more investment, measures to improve productivity and 2,500 redundancies. BMW also managed to squeeze a £1.5m pledge of support from the government, while the unions bent over backwards to successfully push through the deal. Sir Ken Jackson, of the AEEU, said at the time, "This excellent result puts Rover on course for success and the workforce on course for stability" and Roger Lyons, of the MSF, said "This is a vote of confidence in the future of the car industry and shows that partnership is now the central focus of British industrial relations." (BBC Online, 11/12/98). Far from defending the interests of the workers, the unions again revealed their real role as the servants of the bosses and the interests of capitalism.
Last year, Rover’s losses continued Rover’s losses continued to mount, up to a staggering £1m a day, and another 9,000 jobs were axed as further improvements in productivity were made. The European Union has blocked the government’s support package and sales have dropped 7%, hit by the high value of the pound. The owners of BMW began to get concerned as the ‘English Patient’ dragged down the group’s profits. They held secret talks to off-load Rover onto the Alchemy group. The Labour government must have been aware of these plans. Its anger and shock at the sale are a complete bluff. It knew the writing was on the wall for Rover and has stood aside, saying that it can’t stand in the way of ‘global forces’.
The problems at Rover are common to the whole of the manufacturing industry, symptoms of the broader world economic crisis and increased competition on the world market. Ford have announced 1,500 losses at Dagenham, which itself is earmarked for closure, as is the Halewood plant in Merseyside. Honda plan to halve car production at its Swindon plant. In the steel sector, Corus (the former British Steel) is considering further plant closures and massive job losses. Up to 6,000 jobs are under threat at Port Talbot and Llanwern. At Belfast’s Harland and Wolff yard almost 1,800 workers are working on redundan workers are working on redundancy notices due to expire in June. All this comes on top of the programme of pit closures in the ‘90s that saw 160,000 jobs destroyed and entire communities devastated.
Neither nationalism nor nationalisation
On hearing of the sale of Rover, the unions changed their tune with regards to BMW. The same union leaders, who during the last two years have eagerly organised over 11,500 redundancies, are now saying, "We are not going to keel over and accept 50,000 job losses that this sale could lead to" (Tony Woodley of MSF, BBC Online, 20/3/00). Union leaders and MPs have called for a nationalistic consumer boycott of BMW cars. This hides the fact that BMW workers in Germany are also under constant attack and have exactly the same interests as workers everywhere. The German engineering unions have just accepted a meagre two year pay deal of 3% for 2000 and 2.1% for 2001, leading one German economist to say that, "the employers were the clear winners" (Financial Times, 29/3/00). A boycott of BMW is not the way workers can resist the attacks upon them.
The leftists and the union shop stewards are more sophisticated. They reject the idea of a ated. They reject the idea of a boycott, and have taken a more ‘radical’ stance, calling for state intervention to rescue Rover, "We want Rover back in public ownership. We want re-nationalisation. BMW has still got massive assets in this country...The government should seize them now, without compensation" (Socialist Worker, 25/3/00). Although the SWP admit that re-nationalisation is no answer to over-production, they say that, "it could begin to challenge the power of the corporations which wreck workers’ lives everywhere" (ibid.). While it is true that the capitalist state intervenes in the economy every day, to think that state ownership could guarantee jobs and improve working conditions is mistaken. Workers in the NHS and education face increasing exploitation and are leaving in their thousands. When British Leyland was nationalised in 1975 54,000 workers were sacked. So much for job security!
Class struggle is the only way to defend ourselves
The union organised demonstration on 1st April attracted 80,000 people from all over the country, who are quite rightly angry and worried for the future of the region. But these demonstrations, like the one against the pit-closures in 1992, won’t push back then 1992, won’t push back the attacks on the working class. They are tightly controlled by the unions whose role is to keep discontent within the union prison. The leftist demands for the union leaders to call mass strikes will fall on deaf ears. They know this. When the anger of the workers reaches a certain point then strikes may well take place. But the unions will make sure the workers remain isolated in their own sector in demoralising, drawn out, dispersed actions as has happened on the London Underground and Connex. The role of the unions is to sabotage the class struggle, not to lead it!
Calls for factory occupations from the leftists are a trap as well. They are raised in order to attract workers who are losing faith in the unions and looking for an alternative to the Labour Party. The role of the leftists today is to divert discontent back into campaigns to put pressure on the union leaders and the government. The SWP also uses these campaigns to bolster the defence of capitalist democracy (see article on the LSA p.2). The SWP, and the other leftist outfits, are not socialists and represent the left-wing of capitalism and are, like the unions, the enemies of the working class.
Behind the leftist calls for nationalisation is the idea that it’s a stthe idea that it’s a step towards socialism. This is a lie. Socialism is the only perspective for the working class and humanity. But calls for nationalisation only tie the working class into the framework of capitalism and the nation.
The working class must begin to discuss amongst itself the best ways to take control of its struggles, to recognise its ‘false friends’ for what they are and reject them. Through the daily defence of basic living and working conditions, even if these struggles do not escape union control, workers can begin to regain their confidence, forge their identity as a social force, and gain political experience. Then the balance of class forces can begin to swing in their favour. This will take some time and there are no simple solutions. The working class is not defeated, and levels of class combativity are slowly but surely recovering internationally. The capitalist economic crisis will continue to worsen and the future holds many more attacks like those seen at Rover, but also the perspective of wider class conflicts.