At the Ford Bridgend engine plant, union members have voted to reject the closure and to take industrial action if needed.
The question now is what union leaders will do to build on those votes. A plan to save the jobs at the Ford Bridgend engine plant should combine three key elements: • A serious leverage campaign — aimed at hurting the key decision-makers right in their profit drivers • Political campaigning, to commit Labour on a public ownership plan for key industrial enterprises such as this that come under threat — nationalisation under workers’ control • A campaign to win the workforce over to a militant policy to protect jobs.
Workers understand the argument that, although a big severance cheque may pay off your mortgage or set up your retirement, the thousands in the supply chain will get no such cheque, and your kids won’t have the opportunity of a well-paid job with a union and a decent pension scheme. The job isn’t yours to sell, however tempting the price may be.
This argument is particularly strong in Bridgend, where the closure will hit an already deprived area with very few alternative opportunities. And it appears that many shop stewards at other Ford plants are keen to fight too, correctly seeing that they are next.
It is no doubt a hard task to convince workers to say no to the sort of massive severance cheques car companies can wave in order to keep production moving until a closure; but it is not impossible, especially if you start the work early. Unite officials need to seriously up their game. The threat to the automotive industry, and to others such as aerospace and manufacturing, is clear. Where is the campaign preparation that can seriously pressure the companies and executives that will make the decisions on which thousands of members and their communities depend? How are the workers affected being prepared? Where is the targeted organising to make sure that the union is strong and ready to take action in strategic enterprises?
Shop stewards need to be right at the centre of this process, coordinating together and setting the industrial agenda at a sector-wide level. The workforce at Honda Swindon — site of the previous large closure announcement — has apparently voted to accept large pay-offs from the company to sell their jobs. Some Unite officials see this as a good deal secured by the union for its existing members. Others see it as a shame but, “well, what can you do if the members won’t fight?” Yet others in the union see it for what it is — an industrial tragedy, in which the union officialdom played barely a walk-on role.
As with Bridgend, the news at Honda was hardly out of the blue. Brexit, the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, plus noises from Japan pointed to bad news for Swindon for a long time. When the company announced its intentions in February, Unite quickly put Len McCluskey’s heir apparent, Steve Turner, in charge of the campaign to save the plant.
What came next was not very impressive. Lobbies of the UK Parliament and marches round Swindon will have little impact on executives in Japan who are making cold calculations based on profits. The time from first rumblings to initial announcement in February, to confirmation in May, was utterly wasted. A serious campaign to save the plant could have been planned and resourced in advance of any announcement — indeed, given Brexit, a plan should have been developed for the entire industry.
The union is running late. But the shopfloor votes in Bridgend show that — with more initiative from the union leaders — we can catch up.