British jobs for British workers?
The struggle for jobs at Bombardier must not be diverted by sectionalism or nationalism, urges Peter Manson
The July 23 demonstration of up to 10,000 people against the threatened closure of train-makers Bombardier, and consequent loss of over 1,400 jobs, was hugely impressive, especially for a town like Derby, with 230,000 inhabitants. Bombardier workers are determined that the plant shall not close and they have won broad support among the local population.
Naturally, in a struggle like this, that determination to resist the destruction of their livelihoods is fired by all sorts of ideas - backward as well as progressive. It is to be expected, for example, that trade unionists seeking to defend their jobs from competitors may react sectionally: we are better equipped, more skilful and more efficient - in short more deserving of the work - than any rivals. It is, of course, the duty of partisans of the whole class to combat such ideas; to nurture the idea that the struggle of the proletariat - not just in one factory, one town or one country - is global. It is their duty to champion working class unity in opposition to our class enemies: the owners of capital and their state.
Unfortunately, however, the organisers of the demonstration took a diametrically opposite approach: what they sought to promote was the unity of Derby in the fight to save Bombardier. So not only were there local and national union leaders on the platform, but representatives of capital in the shape of the chairman of Bombardier’s British operation, Colin Walton, and the Conservative leader of Derby council, Philip Hickson.
Some union speakers seemed to adapt their speeches accordingly. Bob Crow, for instance, declared: “We need a different kind of society - one that invests in industry.” Walton could hardly disagree: “The entire management staff is here to show our support with our employees,” he said. For his part, councillor Hickson implied that the government knew “the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. But it was not the occasion to remind the thousands listening that the council he heads is itself in the process of slashing its workforce to comply with his party’s austerity drive.
Even worse, this Derby-sectionalism frequently spilled over into nationalism. As readers will be aware, the immediate cause of the Bombardier crisis is the failure of the company to win a £1.4 billion contract for rolling stock with Thameslink. Transport secretary Phillip Hammond announced in June that the contract had been awarded to German company Siemens. According to Tory rail minister Theresa Villiers, the Siemens bid represented the “best value for money for taxpayers”.
Unsurprisingly, then, speakers appealed to the government’s sense of patriotism. Unite general secretary Tony Woodley resorted to the use of that disgraceful phrase, “British jobs for British workers”, while many other speakers also posed British interests as against those of Germany. Some referred to the words of chancellor George Osborne in March: “We want the words ‘Made in Britain’ ... to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried forward by the march of the makers. That is how we will create jobs and support families.” This was thrown back in Osborne’s face - why didn’t his actions match up to his words?
Certainly, the decision is causing the government some embarrassment - a broad, nationalistic coalition has emerged, from The Daily Telegraph, through the Daily Mirror, to the Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star, all expressing either disquiet or outright opposition. The Canadian-owned Bombardier is the last major train manufacturing company operating in Britain, after all, and the threatened job losses in Derby would reduce its UK workforce by almost half. Before privatisation in 1989 the company was part of British Rail Engineering Ltd and was acquired by the Canadian transnational in 2001.
Mixed with the pro-Derby localism and British nationalism has been the assertion, not least on the left, that the decision to deny Bombardier the contract on business or ‘best value’ grounds was plain wrong. Writing in the Morning Star, the Labour MP for Derby North, Chris Williamson, bluntly declares: “... there is no basis for ministerial assertions about Siemens offering better value for taxpayers .... The fact is that Bombardier has a superior product in the Aventra, with its tried and tested lightweight bogie, a wheel framework which is a requirement of the Thameslink specification. By contrast, Siemens has not developed an equivalent, posing a serious risk to the deliverability of the project” (July 23-24).
Strange that the government overlooked all that, isn’t it? In the same edition of the Star, CPB chair Bill Greenshields is equally baffled, referring to the Tories’ “apparently inexplicable decision to invest abroad during an economic crisis”. Somewhat contradictorily, however, he adds that this is “entirely in line with its determination to make ordinary working people pay for the crisis and ensure the transnationals get richer”. Presumably he means German, not Canadian, transnationals.
Comrade Greenshields cannot resist a poke at the European Union: “EU public procurement and liberalisation rules allowed the government to declare Siemens as best value for money.” Unlike Chris Williamson, however, he does not deny that on strictly commercial grounds this may have been an accurate conclusion. But those German capitalists are just not playing fair: “Siemens undercut the bid ... by virtue of its workers’ lower wages and conditions” (a somewhat dubious claim).
In any case, “Many governments ignore these rules. Germany has consistently awarded just under 100% of all rail contracts internally ... France places 100% of contracts to French firms ...” Obviously, everyone should look after ‘their own’. If those foreigners are cheating, why should ‘we’ play fair?
Arch-Europhobe Brian Denny went further in an earlier article: “... French and German governments have largely ignored these EU rules and illegally loaded the contracts to take into account the economic and social impact locally, clearly benefiting the host country” (my emphasis, July 5). As a result, “work is transferred forever to Germany and this country’s skills base is further eroded”.
Leaving aside the implication that only Britain’s “skills base” is worth defending and expanding, I am not sure that “forever” is the right word - it is estimated that the contract to manufacture 1,200 new carriages for Thameslink will take just four years to complete. (This poses another question, by the way: if the failure to win this one deal will result in such decimation, what does that say about the overall demand for rolling stock?)
Comrade Denny, a leading figure on the CPB’s extreme nationalist wing, is not sure who to blame the most. On the one hand, “... the Con-Dem government share the EU’s mania for ‘liberalisation’ and privatisation as weapons to attack social railway, jobs, pay and pensions and deliver lucrative contracts to monopoly capital.” On the other, “... while British governments remain enslaved to EU public procurement rules designed to benefit finance capital at the expense of member-states and their citizens, no industry is safe.”
He does not, however, make the undercutting claim against Siemens. Rather, he complains that the socioeconomic cost has not been factored in. Writing in The Socialist, Steve Score makes the same point: “... they have not taken into account the wider costs of massive unemployment - extra benefits paid out and lost taxes” (July 20). Once again, it is rather unseemly for ‘internationalists’ to use such arguments - they imply that “the wider costs of massive unemployment” would be of less concern to German workers if Siemens had lost out.
Similarly, comrade Score complains about the cheaper finance available to Siemens: “The bids had to include the cost of financing the investment, which put Bombardier at a disadvantage compared to Siemens, as it has a poorer credit rating.” This is all very well, but it does nothing to combat the notion that ‘we’ must compete for work against potential rivals and that there will be winners and losers as a result.
The Socialist does make some sound demands, however: “Open the books to inspection by the unions and the workforce! Nationalise Bombardier under democratic workers’ control and management to save jobs! For an expansion of the rail network and public transport on the basis of public ownership and democratic control!” These are absolutely correct - but they obviously should be made in parallel to similar demands in Germany and other countries, not bolted onto an article that buys into the notion of Derby workers being done down by those Germans.
This brings me to the letter from David Douglass we published last week. Comrade Douglass is “sadly coming to the conclusion that the CPGB has adopted some weird, ultra-leftist, utopian superinternationalist logic, which renders any struggle to save jobs in the British Isles private industry reactionary and ‘nationalist’” (July 21).
He explains: “Superinternationalism means you can’t defend or fight for anything produced here - ie, in Britain, by the workers here - because this would be de facto ‘British jobs for British workers’. So if the company decides to keep your plant open, OK, but if they don’t, you can’t demand that they do, as this is chauvinistic and nationalist.”
Comrade Douglass also cries foul, in the same way as all the others quoted above: “The contract was won, incidentally ... because the cost of manufacture here had not been offset against social costs - the dole, welfare payments, benefit entitlements and loss to the ancillary and wider economy - as it is throughout the rest of Europe. That it wasn’t signals an agenda which has been in place for the last 30 years and increasingly means the slow, torturous death of manufacturing and growing impoverishment of British workers.”
Well, David, since you are not questioning the competitive contracting process itself, surely you must accept that those “social costs” will have to be paid by whoever loses out. That is the point. It is completely wrong to accuse the CPGB of “branding workers on this island who are fighting for the jobs they do and skills they have as chauvinistic and nationalist”. No, it is an excellent thing that workers are prepared to fight.
However, as I have already pointed out, while it is understandable that workers whose livelihoods are under threat should resort to nationalistic arguments, it is totally opportunistic, not to say counterproductive, for ‘communists’ to employ those same arguments.
Comrade Douglass asks: “... I would like to know what your concrete demand would be if you worked in that plant. Yes, occupy it, but to what end?” It is pretty straightforward to find the answer in our Draft programme:
“Faced with plans for closure, mass sackings and threats of capital flight, communists demand:
- No redundancies. Nationalise threatened workplaces or industries under workers’ control.
- Compensation to former owners should be paid only in cases of proven need.
- There must be no business secrets hidden from the workers. Open the books and data banks to the inspection of specialists appointed by and responsible to the workers” (www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1002562 - section 3.7: ‘Nationalisation’).
This should be viewed in parallel with section 3.6. (‘The unemployed’), where we demand: “The right to work at trade union rates of pay or unemployment benefit at the level of the minimum wage.” In other words, we recognise that under capitalism demand for certain forms of production will decline and competing businesses will sometimes go under. But workers collectively should not be made to bear the cost. And the word ‘collectively’ is key. We include in that workers wherever they are: in Britain, Germany or any country. It is despicable for members of the working class movement to connive with the capitalists to uphold British jobs at the expense of German jobs.
That is why our comrades voted against the CPB-inspired motion on Bombardier at the July 9 Coalition of Resistance conference. Despite the deletion of “words which might have implied support for a ‘British work for British workers’ policy” (COR website), the motion still stunk of nationalism. It condemned the government’s “refusal to invest in jobs and a British manufacturing base to its economy” and specifically its “decision to give the £1.4 billion Thameslink rolling stock contract to Siemens in Germany instead of to Bombardier in Derby”. We should “force the Con-Dem government ... to U-turn, invest in industry and keep the jobs in Britain Derby [sic]”.
The motion also extolled the virtues of the CPB-inspired, national socialist “policies of the People’s Charter”, including: “Legislate to compel the re-investment of a percentage of profits in British industry”, “Limit export of investment capital”, “Take back into public ownership essential industries ... to put them and their profits to work for the British people”.
It proposed a utopian Keynesian platform to make capitalism work fairly and efficiently: “Reduce working hours, not pay, to create more jobs ... and so more spending power - to stimulate the economy, increase tax revenue and reduce the number of people forced to live on benefit.”
In my view, CPGB comrades should have attempted from the floor to amend all the British nationalist reformism out of the motion - which, like the others, had not been published in advance. The chair readily accepted the amendment to delete the most offensive phrase, after all. But, failing that, I cannot blame them for voting against such an obnoxious platform.
Yes, David, we support and encourage workers who decide to resist the Con-Dem attacks. But we want then to do so armed with a principled, global programme.