Rolls Royce and Remploy – fighting to defend jobs
The Rolls Royce plant in Bootle, Merseyside, is set to close this year with jobs starting to be axed as early as April. Two Remploy factories, one in Birkenhead, Merseyside, and one in Liverpool have also been earmarked for closure…..by a Unite member….
All three factories have been making healthy profits for the bosses. But the lure of lower costs has prompted those bosses to take their businesses elsewhere. Rolls Royce is transferring the work to Mount Vernon in the USA.
The British government has decided that the disabled workers at Remploy will be better served by competing for minimum wage jobs in super markets and retail parks than by continuing to produce top quality work-wear products for union agreed rates of pay and terms and conditions in their existing specialist factories.
On Saturday 9 February about 500 Rolls Royce workers and their supporters marched through the centre of Liverpool to demonstrate their anger at the announcement last week that their plant is to be shut down. On Wednesday 6 February the Remploy workers at the two Merseyside factories staged strikes as the opening shot in their campaign to defend their jobs.
Unite is running the “Keep Rolls Royce-Pride on Merseyside” campaign. The GMB and Unite are the unions organising the Remploy workers. It was a shame that the organisers of the Rolls Royce march did not think it fitting to invite Remploy strikers to speak at the rally on Saturday 9 February.
Such a public show of unity between workers involved in two such important campaigns would have sent a powerful message to the bosses about the resistance they will face to their job-cutting plans. That it didn’t happen was unlikely to have been the product of an administrative oversight by the organisers at Unite’s head office. It was part of a wrong strategy for trying to defend the jobs at Rolls Royce by the union’s officials.
This strategy is based on avoiding strike action at all costs – hence no invitation to strikers who might give credence to the idea that such action is necessary to force the bosses to listen. It is based on a pressure group style campaign with getting the Prime Minister to intervene as its principal objective. Unite joint leader, Tony Woodley, made this clear when he revealed that he had spoken to Brown and was urging such intervention as a priority.
The problem is, however, intervention against multinational bosses’ closing their factories in order to get the work done more cheaply somewhere else is not something that New Labour does. And it generates an extremely cruel illusion amongst the ranks of the Rolls Royce workforce to suggest that Brown will come to the rescue.
Yet, while the illusion does exist – and it was clear from the march that many workers have bought Woodley’s line – precious time gets lost lobbying when action could achieve a lot more. And instead of stressing working class unity, including globally, in the fight to defend jobs the Unite leadership is encouraging a nationalist inspired approach to saving British jobs, with emphasis on British, not jobs. This went so far as giving marchers union jacks to wave on the protest.
The idea is simple – paint the job cuts in nationalist terms as a means of putting pressure on Brown to act in the national interest. Simple, but futile. For Brown the national interest revolves around guaranteeing the profits of the corporations not in challenging their right to move jobs around the globe in search of ever cheaper labour costs.
And the union leaders know this. That is why Unite Regional Officer, Debbie Brannan, hinted that while industrial action would not be ruled out the real objective was “as a minimum the real shareholders [the workforce] should see a 35% increase in their redundancy package”. This is tantamount to accepting the plant is going to be closed and using the appeal to Gordon Brown and nationalism to disguise the union’s failure to organise a proper fight to stop it.
What does a proper fight mean? In Remploy the rank and file workers took the lead in taking their very first strike action last Wednesday. Labour had promised to keep the Remploy factories open. Barely had Peter Hain made this promise (and well before he resigned under a dark and dodgy financial cloud) he and Brown reneged on it and targeted a series of factories – including the best union organised ones like Birkenhead – for closure.
Divide and rule worked to an extent when a ballot for action across the whole group failed to deliver a majority. On Merseyside the workers decided that the threatened factories should take the lead and organise plant wide ballots for action. When the ballot went ahead there was a 100% vote for a strike in Birkenhead and a 98% vote for action in Liverpool.
The rank and file then contacted other workers via the Merseyside Association of Trades Union Councils, which in turn approached postal and refuse workers, delivery workers and so on to make sure that no one would be crossing the picket line at Remploy. The strike was a tremendous success.
More action is to follow. Now it is possible to have a discussion about the best action to win – and there can be no doubt that an occupation of the threatened plants, a sit down strike, is what is needed. If two Remploy factories and the Rolls Royce plant were occupied, prior to the bosses being able to start moving plant out, prior to them using redundancy packages to weaken resolve and prior to them starting to cut the workforce bit by bit in an attempt to demoralise workers, then the whole situation would change.
Three occupied plants flying a “No Closure Banner” would electrify the labour movement locally and provide a national focus for solidarity from organisations such as the National Shop Stewards networks and the more militant and well organised unions across the country. Solidarity could become a route to victory rather than a slogan on a moth eaten banner.
For this to happen the Rolls Royce workers need to start organising for action now, alongside the Remploy strikers.
The demo in Liverpool on 9 February was impressive. The will for a fightback was clear amongst the rank and file. It is evident too amongst the Remploy workers. If it can be channelled into a wave of sit down strikes then the possibility of saving each of the threatened plants will be increased considerably. Brown and the US bosses of Rolls Royce will be forced to listen if the gates to their factories are blocked by striking workers.
Organising and backing such action should now be the number one priority for the unions involved.