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 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 the both had 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.