Vauxhall: defeat for all car workers

Peter Manson reports on a deal that represents an attack on working conditions

“Trade unionists and car-makers hailed a new deal yesterday to seal a £125 million investment in Vauxhall’s car plant on Merseyside and create hundreds of new jobs.”

True to form, the ‘official communist’ Morning Star, grovelling as usual before the union bureaucracy, begins in this way its report of the Unite union’s disastrous trading of hard-won pay and conditions for jobs - at virtually any price - in a very short piece last week (May 18). Quoting approvingly the satisfaction expressed by both business secretary Vince Cable and Unite ‘left’ general secretary Len McCluskey, the Star report does, however, end with the remark that the news was “bitter-sweet for GM workers internationally”. That is because the deal means that the “Opel factory in Bochum, Germany, which has 3,000 workers, is now under threat”. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) 3,000 is the projected figure for eventual new jobs at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

In fact it is all “bitter” and no “sweet”. The union has succumbed to a deal that represents a further attack on all car workers, including at Vauxhall’s parent company, the US-based General Motors, and its European operation, Opel. Vauxhall chairman Duncan Aldred said it was a “ground-breaking, historic day” for Ellesmere Port and the UK motor industry. Production of the new Astra model will begin in 2015 and is expected to continue until around 2020.

Aldred crowed about the “creative operating solutions to improve flexibility” - night and weekend work without the extra pay represented by overtime, the ending of the traditional summer closure and the employment of more temporary workers. This “flexibility” - voted for by 94% of the Unite members at Ellesmere Port - will allow the plant to work 24 hours a day for 51 weeks of the year if necessary. In other words, if business falls off, the company can get rid of the temporary workers, end the night shift and lay off permanent workers on an enforced summer break.

Unite had previously agreed to successive pay freezes and to cuts in holiday pay for its Vauxhall members - but when the pay freeze eventually ends in 2014 there will be a rise equivalent to that of the retail price index plus one percent. Well, thanks a lot. In the meantime, real pay, after allowing for inflation, will have been slashed year on year.

But such trifles are of no concern to the likes of Cable, who revelled in this “good story” - it just goes to show that the UK is “a good business environment for the motor industry”. That was echoed by McCluskey, who, admittedly, did spare a thought for workers at Bochum. However, that was as far as his international solidarity stretched, for the Unite leader could not help but be pleased that “there is now a potential for a future at the plant until 2020 and beyond”. And, don’t forget, the deal is very good for Britain, isn’t it? - “Importantly this move will also bring component supplier plants back into the UK - a development that strengthens our manufacturing base generally.” Well, so long as “our” manufacturing base is strengthened, who gives a toss about jobs elsewhere?

No wonder prime minister David Cameron was so pleased with comrade McCluskey: “This has been a real team effort,” he said, “with the government, the company, unions and workers all focused on keeping production in the UK.” There are various government development packages and so forth available to entice transnationals like GM, but surely what clinched it for the company was the much greater productivity that UK workers can now boast, compared to their brothers and sisters on the continent. For example, Ellesmere Port produces 47 cars an hour, whereas Bochum can only manage 30. So even before the introduction of 24-hour working the Cheshire plant churns out more vehicles a day than Bochum, despite the fact that the latter is already running three shifts a day.

One thing that was not in Ellesmere Port’s favour was the fact that it is easier and cheaper to sack workers in Britain than most other countries in Europe. But that was outweighed by the willingness of union leaders like McCluskey to give away his members’ hard-won pay and conditions. He did that by persuading them that it was a straight choice between that and their jobs - after all, times are hard, aren’t they, and any job is better than none.

McCluskey was also able to point to the company’s recent losses - in 2011 Opel was in the red to the tune of $750 million across Europe, while its total European losses since 1999 amount to $11 billion. It was such figures that persuaded the union bureaucrats that they had no alternative but to join the ‘race to the bottom’. In addition, a leaked GM policy paper had discussed the closure of both Bochum and Ellesmere Port - production is now much more profitable in the US itself following the success of its assault on employees across the Atlantic over the last decade. Ellesmere Port will have it easy, compared to what GM has imposed on its home plants.

With the apparent threat of work being transferred out of Europe altogether, the unions in Germany and Britain scurried to Opel to persuade it, in true sectional style, that their workers were the more reliable and compliant. It seems that McCluskey et al did a better job of it than their German counterparts.

Of course, sectionalism is a natural response of the trade union bureaucracy to competition within capitalism. Not only must it make a show of defending its members against attacks by the employer: it must also defend them from what are seen as rival groups of workers willing to do ‘our’ work. Within a single country this sectionalism is to some extent mitigated by the fact that potential rivals will often belong to the same union, which must attempt to represent them all if it wishes to retain their membership.

The way of combating sectionalism across national borders is obvious then. The slogan, ‘One industry, one union’ must apply internationally. We are, after all, dealing with a transnational company, whose primary concern is the maximisation of profit, irrespective of which groups of workers are exploited and in which country. The nationalism that afflicts both the bureaucrats and their apologists such as the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain severely weakens us all - a fact that the Star implicitly recognises by the fact that it does not dwell on the ignominious details of the Ellesmere Port deal, restricting its report to under 400 words.

What of the losses currently being suffered by GM, Opel and Vauxhall? In these circumstances isn’t it reasonable for workers to ‘temporarily’ accept lower pay, worse conditions, etc, and wait for better times? Well, actually, it is not reasonable. Capitalism’s business cycle, its tendency to undergo periodic crises are not the responsibility of workers. Every worker must have the right to a full life and must not be expected to endure the consequences of capital’s downturns, recessions and crises. They are not of our making. They are caused by a system based not on cooperation and production for need (and do we need millions of private vehicles rather than an efficient public transport system?), but on production for profit undertaken by nationally based mutual competitors.

That does not mean we will not sometimes be forced to concede defeat and accept worse conditions in unfavourable circumstances. But in order to reduce such occurrences to the minimum we need not only international trade union organisation, but politics. And it goes without saying that the politics we require are not only intransigently proletarian, but intransigently internationalist.