The article below was written and published on our website a few days before General Motors confirmed that 900 jobs were to go at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant. The government sent Gordon Brown and the Trade Minister Alistair Darling to reassure the workers that “We will do what we can for each and every one of the workforce who may lose their jobs” but the workers know how tough it is going to be to find similar work, which partially explains why the wildcat strike was supported so solidly. As Roger Maddison of the Amicus union said: “If the experience of workers from Rover at Longbridge is anything to go by, it is going to be very difficult… Everybody is reducing staff - even the companies with increased productivity.”
Despite how difficult it is to actually reverse factory closures, there is a determination amongst the workers to stand up to these attacks, not only within the car industry (such as at Peugeot’s factory at Ryton in Coventry), but in other sectors as well, for example among the workers at the HP sauce factory in Birmingham which is also faced with closure. However, it is becoming clear to many workers that the first obstacle in their way is the unions, and there is growing criticism of them.
“‘Woodley (TGWU boss-ed) is ‘awkward’ only when it suits him,’ said John. ‘He used to work here, but he was a lot keener on meeting Brown and the managers than us. We should just say, ‘Sod you, we’re out.’ We’re angry and disgusted because we’ve worked really hard to improve quality and production – and this is what we get.’ Dave, a Peugeot Ryton worker, says, ‘Most of the time the trade unions are just nodding their heads. You feel like it’s our own shooting us in the back. They say the shop floor isn’t strong enough. But we need leadership. The union just keeps letting them get away with it. I think the buck stops with the government.’ Simon, another Ryton worker, said, ‘They say it’s the economy and at least there’s no compulsory redundancies. Lots of us have heard that before. Some of us want to make a stand and walk out. But certain people in the union keep calming things down. I wish they wouldn’t – the bastards need to know how people feel.’”
These comments were published in the Trotskyist paper Socialist Worker, 27/5/06. They won’t prevent the SWP from calling for workers to strengthen the trade unions and make them more ‘democratic’. On the contrary, ‘saving’ the trade unions from proletarian anger is one of the most valuable services the SWP renders to the present system. But the workers’ growing suspicion of the unions, and their increasing willingness to take action outside their numbing grip, is a phenomenon that is becoming more evident on a world-wide scale.
The walkout by up to 3,000 Vauxhall car workers at the Ellesmere plant on the 11th May only lasted a day, but it expressed something very important: the refusal to passively accept being thrown onto the unemployment scrap-heap. Upon hearing that 1,000 jobs may go, the morning shift walked out. They were joined by the afternoon shift. “Strike action spread through the plant after workers took the comments to mean that GM had already decided to cut the posts” (Guardian 12/5/06). By the end of the day all three thousand workers had joined in this struggle. The management and the unions rapidly make it clear that there had been no decision on the numbers to be thrown on the street. The unions got the workers to go back with the promise that they would negotiate with the management.
This spontaneous rejection of the threat of lay-offs has to be seen in a wider context. It came within days of the announcement of up to 2,000 lay offs at Orange mobile phones, another 500 health workers being laid off - this time by Gloucestershire’s three Primary Care Trusts with the closure of community hospitals - and the dismissal of 6,000 telecommunications workers at NTL. It also came after the decision of the French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen to close its central England plant next year, eliminating 2,300 jobs, and the closing of Rover last year. Thus, the evident determination of the Vauxhall workers not to passively accept unemployment was an example to the rest of the working class.
The Vauxhall workers’ action also needs to be seen against the background of a resurgence of struggles. The strike of over a million council workers on the 28th March in defence of pensions, the postal workers’ unofficial strike in Belfast, the massive student movement in France this spring, the strike by council workers in Germany at the same time, the transport workers’ strike in New York in December – all these movements provide proof that there is a new mood developing in the international working class, a growing determination to defend its interests against attacks, especially on the issue of jobs and pensions.
The struggle at Vauxhall was right from the beginning a response to international conditions. The ignition-key for the struggle were comments by GM Europe’s chief executive, Carl-Peter Forster “We know, thank God, that the English labour market is more capable of absorption than, let’s say, the German or the Belgian markets”. (BBC News on-line 12/5/06). Whether this was a provocation or simply an unguarded comment is hard to tell, but one thing is for certain: the unions and bosses used them as an excuse for playing the nationalist card. It is not only in Britain that Vauxhall workers are under threat but throughout Europe and world wide, as are other car workers at Ford, GM and elsewhere. In order to try and stop any international solidarity against these attacks, the unions used Forster’s comments to try and set up a barrier between the Ellesmere workers and their comrades in the rest of Europe. Both the TGWU and Amicus played the nationalist card: “British car workers are among the best in Europe, but they’re the easiest to sack”, said TGWU General Secretary Tony Woodley (BBC on-line 12/5/06). Whilst according to the BBC, “Amicus said it wanted cuts to be spread throughout Europe’s Astra plants in Belgium and Germany.” (www.bbc.co.uk/news 12/5/06).
The unions may have played the nationalist card to divert the workers’ discontent, but they have shown real international solidarity with Vauxhall’s bosses: for weeks before and during the struggle they had both been planning “ways of spreading any job losses across Europe, and talks between the two sides will continue today” (The Guardian 12/5/06).
Forster’s comments also contained the very poisonous idea that even if workers are laid-off, there are jobs in Britain to go around. This is the lie pushed by the government as well. The economy is working well over here, so if you are unemployed it is your own fault. This idea seeks to reduce the unemployed to isolated individuals. The fact that there are officially over one and half million unemployed is simply brushed aside. However workers are increasingly not willing to accept the capitalist logic of accepting one’s fate. The fact that this struggle was reported on the main BBC evening news, albeit with the unions pushing the nationalist message of the defence of British jobs, showed that discontent is growing in the class.
This increasing militancy is in its initial stages but there is a growing determination within the working class to defend jobs. As with Ellesmere, workers have gone through years of accepting attacks on working conditions, on wages and job security in order to at least maintain some level of employment where they work. Today however increasing numbers of workers are no longer willing to make these endless sacrifices. There is a growing realisation that all workers are under attack, as night after night there are reports of lay-offs in plants, in hospitals, or in offices.
Fighting unemployment is not easy: often bosses will try to use strikes as a pretext for pushing through the plant-closures they want anyway. But it is far easier to do this when the workers’ resistance remains isolated to one factory or company. On the other hand, the threat or reality of struggles extending across union, sectional and other divisions – in short, the threat of the mass strike – can oblige the ruling class to back down, as it did over the CPE in France.
Such retreats by the bourgeoisie can only be temporary. The remorseless deepening of the economic crisis will force it to return to the offensive and make even more desperate attacks on living and working conditions. In the final analysis, massive unemployment is a sure sign of the bankruptcy of capitalist society. For the working class, they must become a stimulus for struggling not only against the effects of exploitation, but against exploitation itself. ICC 16.5.06.