Britain - nationalism has no place in the working class movement

Jul/Sep 2012

All too often, British union leaders have resorted to nationalist flag-waving to defend "British" enterprise against "foreign" competition - conflating the interest of the bosses with those of workers. In addition, more or less xenophobic campaigns have been launched against the use of foreign contract labour above "British" labour, or even against the European Union's Lisbon Treaty or the European Union itself. This is all done in the name of defending "British" workers' interests, of course, as if these were somehow separate from the interests of workers in general, across the globe.

Although this phenomenon is not entirely new, the fact that it has been expressing itself in the context of a worsening crisis, makes it all the more dangerous - a danger over and above the fact that these ignorant and chauvinist policies are an utterly rotten substitute for a long overdue fight against the latest capitalist offensive.

In 2009 there were the "British jobs for British workers" placards which appeared at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, endorsed at the time by local union officials from Unite and then later repudiated. But even if the union leaderships have become more cautious or nuanced of late, their claims of "national pride" and tendency to adopt protectionist policies remain intact, echoing on a larger scale the pernicious sectionalism which has so long been such an obstacle to building an effective collective fight back.

A most abject beauty contest

Nationalist posturing by union officials is not merely an issue of political principle from the point of view of working class interests. It has practical consequences in the real world. By choosing to operate on the basis that British workers have distinct interests from workers elsewhere, union officials (whether consciously or not) play right into the hands of the capitalist profiteers. This kind of choice has a built-in logic which has led union officials to agree that workers here in Britain should undercut the wages and conditions of workers elsewhere, in order to remain "competitive" - and in order to keep their jobs. Even if the latter promise is only made in order to be broken at a later date.

By underwriting such "beauty contests", union officials have turned themselves into pimps, competing to sell their members' "wares" - or to put it crudely, selling workers' agreement to be screwed, and always behind their backs. The most beautiful worker to the boss is the most highly exploitable one, whether this worker speaks English, German or Vietnamese. What transpires these days, is a high-speed "race to the bottom" - as was so well illustrated in May this year, when the Vauxhall Ellesmere Port factory "won", against its German counterparts, the contract to build the new Astra in 2015.

General Motors, the US-based giant owner of Opel/Vauxhall in Europe, successfully played these workforces off against each other - with the indispensable help of union officials like the former co-leader of the Unite union, Tony Woodley. He intervened because (he said) of his sentimental link with Ellesmere Port - where he had once been a local union convenor, before he became the Transport and General Workers' Union's (T&G's) full-time official responsible for the car industry - a position which later helped him shoot to the top of the giant, merged, Unite union's leadership.

Ellesmere Port's "winning deal" was described by the popular right-wing Daily Mail as a "a famous victory and massive boost to the UK economy that has left German rivals reeling."

Whether it left "German rivals reeling" or not, (and if it did, it was not fo reasons the Daily Mail would understand) this "victory" actually means the drastic worsening of terms and conditions for Ellesmere Port workers. And this was something that German trade union officials predicted - even if they are scarcely better in their wheelings and dealings than their British counterparts, at the end of the day. However, at the time of this deal, they happened to be presiding over "warning strikes" in a dispute over a pay rise for all engineering workers. Wolfgang Schaefer-Klug from the IGMetall union - and who is Opel's works council chairman - knew exactly what was going on: "the strategy of Opel seems to be to travel from factory to factory and put workers under pressure to make concessions so that at the end of the day they can secure as great a sacrifice of wages as possible and toughen employment conditions across Europe", he added "but that won't work." In fact he also added his impression that Opel had no intention of closing Ellesmere Port, but that production of the Astra at the Rüsselheim factory was certainly under threat. Rüsselheim was likely to take over producing another model altogether (the Zafira), presently being produced at the Bochum plant - and this meant that the Bochum plant was the plant which was under threat, not Ellesmere Port.

Nevertheless, after at least a decade of having a sword held over their heads, whether it was to get them to take cuts in jobs or conditions, the Ellesmere Port workers, already on short time because of a market slump, were easy prey for management's threats of closure - and certainly so, in the absence of any alternative strategy forthcoming from their union leaders. Their third shift had been cut in 2006; several closure "scares" had been waved in front of the workforce after this; temps had been eliminated and over 55s offered early retirement. When GM bungled a sell-off in 2009, just after it had received a bail-out from the US government (it is now 32% "nationalised"!) workers yet again expected the worst. However GM didn't sell, and instead, made a tie-up with France's Peugeot-Citroen. But then the rumour mill of plant closures started up once more, based on serious "overcapacity in Europe" between these two companies!

So when workers were told, this time round, that if they did not accept the deal in front of them, the plant was very likely doomed, 94% voted to accept the deal. And while it meant a drastic reduction in their conditions, it also meant that the plant would "win" the privilege of producing the new Astra from 2015 (shared with the Gliwice plant in Poland) and gain £125m investment to create 700 new jobs plus up to 3,000 at suppliers.

What was so "drastic" then?

The agreement includes: a 4-year wage deal, set to start in August 2013, with pay frozen for 2 years, then in the 3rd and 4th years, an increase of RPI plus 1%.

BUT assuming the 700 new hires are taken on, they will firstly, be excluded from the final salary pension scheme and secondly, will be on lower pay for 4 years! They will get 70% of existing workers' basic pay in year one, 75% in year two, 80% in year three, 90% in year 4 and finally, in year 5, if they are lucky enough still to be there, they will finally get equal pay for equal work!

There will be a "more flexible 'corridor model' of working" explained Phil Millwood the HR boss: during periods of low demand, workers are laid off, but the hours they don't work, and which are paid for, will not be spent in relaxation! No, they will be "banked" in a "working time account" and as the HR boss said, "when we are faced with good times and additional volume demand the workforce will repay those hours.'

The summer shutdown is abolished, so that the plant can run 51 weeks a year with just one week closure for Xmas. But it will run on a 3-shift system (instead of 2) "to drive up output". This plant has not run on a 3-shift rotation since 2006, when nearly 1,000 employees were made redundant after Astra production was cut. At that time a shift premium of 28% was being paid, so the 22% carrot offered today, for 3-shift working represents a relative saving of 6% for the company. In addition, 2 hours overtime a week becomes mandatory for everyone when needed - pushing the working week to 40 hours.

A new "advanced operator grade" is to be created to help keep the lines running round the clock - existing maintenance is not threatened by this, but in order to do the more complex work during weekends, the skilled workers will be subjected to a new 7-days-a-week work pattern.

And why, you might ask, invest in future round-the-clock production, when GM has been "overproducing" up to now? Simply because with all the new working conditions in place, GM can stockpile cars at any time it wishes and then lay workers off, while saving a lot of money on its wage bill!

Fake internationalism

Unite union's general secretary Len McCluskey told the BBC: "From a position of uncertainty earlier this year, there is now a potential for a future at the plant until 2020 and beyond. Importantly this move will also bring component supplier plants back into the UK, a development that strengthens our manufacturing base generally."

The BBC added that "he said he recognised that Ellesmere Port's good news could spell bad news for other GM operations in Europe." "Bad news" for other GM workers in Europe? That's for sure! Not that McCluskey has ever bothered to discuss the issue with his European counterparts. As to the "good news" for Ellesmere Port workers, whose interests McCluskey claims to represent, he was careful not to mention the heavy cost of this deal to them. He appears to be more concerned to show how much he cares for "British industry".

A GM executive was quoted by he Financial Times as saying that, "The plant would have closed if the unions and government [business secretary Vince Cable] hadn't got together and said, 'give us a go at making a stonking deal'"! And how very stonking it is. Or stinking.

Tony Woodley, the ex-leader of Unite involved in brokering the deal has got past form, of course. It was he who played the central role in the fraudulent 2001 "saving of Longbridge" - a deal which collapsed in 2005, exposing the venture capitalists ("Phoenix Venture Holdings") as crooks and leaving 6,500 workers literally high and dry. It was he who presided over the end of Fiesta production at Ford Dagenham in 2002, and it was he who organised a "Buy British" campaign as the only "weapon" against the closure of the Peugeot Ryton plant in December 2006. Yes, a campaign to boycott "French cars" which produced a lot of posters and stickers adorned with the Union Jack - and a few futile and poorly-attended "pickets" of car showrooms, with no impact whatsoever. Except that it did play to a brand of anti-French rhetoric which could have been expected from the pages of the Sun newspaper - which famously denounced the EU's Maastricht Treaty introduced by the French foreign minister with the headline, "up yours Delors!" - but not a "respectable" working class organisation.

It is ironic that this same Tony Woodley used to complain bitterly that it was easier and cheaper to sack British workers than to sack German and French workers, and that therefore, if there were factories to be closed, British plants would be first in line - meaning that of course, there was really nothing to be done about it, except complain about the foreign bosses who took advantage.

However, the flexibility deals which he and his fellow officials have helped to negotiate over the past few years have eroded working conditions and cut costs in Britain to the point where even the (supposed) higher costs of a German closure can apparently be covered by the savings made here! No doubt Woodley is happy now.

Of course, if the spate of factory closures which took place in the last decade was carried out with relative ease by corporate bosses, it had less to do with expensive redundancies in Europe, than with the supine attitude of British union leaders - which bosses no doubt knew they could rely upon.

It is worth mentioning that business secretary Vince Cable and Cameron were joined by union leaders like Woodley and McCluskey in their praise of the "superior efficiency" of Ellesmere Port workers compared to their German counterparts. One newspaper even compared the 47 cars per hour produced at Ellesmere Port with the 30 cars per hour in Bochum. But forgot to mention that in Bochum workers make the Zafira, a smallish SUV, not the Astra - and so it is hardly comparable!

As to the situation at the German plant in Bochum, a deal is being proposed which will end Zafira production there in 2016, rather than 2014, when the present agreement with the workforce would normally have ended - in exchange for delaying a 4.3% pay rise. GM has also promised no compulsory redundancies among the 3,300 workers there. However, at the time of writing, the deal has not yet been agreed.

No German car plant has been shut since WW2. The union convenor at Bochum suspects that GM may be trying to get Bochum workers to agree the same radical cuts in conditions as workers did in Ellesmere Port and offer to keep the plant open if they did. 2,000 workers walked out in protest when they heard about the planned closure. The German top officials are, however, suggesting an alternative: they say, "bring some of GM's Chevrolet production" - currently done in South Korea - "to Germany"! Never mind about the South Korean workers! Which only goes to show that narrow nationalism is not the sole prerogative of British union officials.

Of course, Unite also proclaims its internationalism. Most recently, it attended the launch on 20 June in Copenhagen of a new "global union federation" called "IndustriALL", initiated by the International Labour Organisation, apparently in order to face new challenges of globalisation and emerging markets. Unite's assistant general secretary, Tony Burke, said that while IndustriALL currently has 50 million members, "we need to double that by organising new workers, agency workers, and young workers worldwide". Which puts this kind of "internationalism" in a nutshell: forget about your own backyard, where casual workers, in jobs for only a few weeks, are left unorganised and isolated, since they are highly unlikely to join a union - but make grandiose statements and write letters to corporations or governments in Egypt or China about how they must give workers over there permanent contracts and how they must respect their rights!

In fact it is Billy Hayes, leader of Britain's postal workers (Communication Workers' Union) who excels at this kind of hypocrisy, recently writing to the South African postal service CEO to tell him that casual postmen - who were on strike at the time - should get permanent contracts, while in Britain, postmen and woman are still being used and abused on temp contracts, presumably with his knowledge, if not his sanction, and all the CWU does is to exhort these workers to join the union.

Of course, as with most of the speechifying and fine words spoken by union leaderships today, whether on national or on international matters, their members seldom get to hear about it, and are not even meant to. The last thing they want is to be held to account.

British cars for British police

Unite officials from Woodley to Roger Maddison - who is now the union's national officer for the car industry - have put forward plans for the development and success of "our" car industry and "our" manufacturing industry, as if their and the union's interests were synonymous with the bosses' interests. Forget about class, forget who owns the means of production and forget the common interest of workers - across borders - against the bosses!

The latest of these plans is called "Driving growth" and it includes 10 points "to build on the recent successes in the UK automotive industry" - one of which is to ask the government to launch an investment bank for industry which would fund small and medium sized enterprises... What that may have to do with defending the interests of the working class is something they would probably explain by saying that a well-off boss makes a well-off worker. When of course the opposite is true, given the nature of capital. But then union leaders have long forgotten that bosses and workers have antagonistic interests!

But the main point that union officials made was that the government needs to procure "British-made" cars! "Unite believes that a key element of boosting vehicle manufacturing must include a positive procurement policy encouraged by central government to buy vehicles manufactured in the UK. The public sector spends around £220 billion each year on procurement." Or, in Roger Maddison's words: "The government could boost demand at a stroke by introducing a procurement strategy to support UK motor manufacturing. It is outrageous that 72 per cent of police vehicles are built outside the UK. This would never happen in Germany or France. Public bodies in the UK should use their buying power to support UK manufacturing."

This may not amount to calling for "British jobs for British workers", although backing "British" bosses is by implication lining up with them against foreign bosses. No, the problem is that it rubs out the class lines - and this is precisely what is pernicious about this kind of nationalism.

In fact it is not even xenophobic, in the sense that for instance, the Indian company Tata Industries which owns Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is praised by Unite for investing in Britain! When in May this year JLR announced £1.5 billion in profits with sales up by 37% Unite's press release went as follows: "In 2008 the automobile industry was hit on a worldwide basis by the credit crunch. JLR was in deeper trouble than most due to demand being at very low levels. The workforce agreed to £70 million of savings to support the company through the downturn. Tata's faith in its UK workforce has paid off with record profits. It proves that investing in the UK motor industry and working positively with the union does create wealth. We hope other motor and components companies follow suit and copy the JLR example."

Yes this is unashamed identification with the "UK industry" and "the company" and, by the same token, with the "savings" imposed on workers using the crassest of all blackmails - over jobs.

No2Bob's anti-Europeanism!

Today's most visible culprit among the trade unions, when it comes to conveying anti-European feeling, is the Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). With 76,093 members, this is a relatively small union, owing its notoriety to the way that its populist general secretary, Bob Crow, has developed his media image - as a tough-talking, but "simple" working man from London's east end - a "man of the people".

Of course, since the RMT organises essential workers in rail, tube and buses - it can punch well above its weight, if it so chooses. But it hardly ever "so chooses" - despite its (unearned) reputation of being one of the most militant unions - and even, according to some, the most "left-wing"!

The union did distinguish itself in 2004, however, when it was expelled from the Labour Party, at a time when Labour leader, Tony Blair's popularity was at an all-time low - due both to the Iraq war and his anti-working class policies. The union's leadership had supported the choice of some branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party rather than to the Labour Party. So the RMT became the first (and only) union to be thus thrown out of the Labour fold.

At the time, some put all of this down to the fact that leader Bob Crow was never in the Labour party - having joined the Communist Party of Britain when he was working on the tracks in the London Underground, and then some time afterwards, having joined Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. But if this explains anything, it is rather the peculiar anti-European demagogy from which the RMT suffers, and which Bob himself asserts proudly. Because this stance has been one espoused by the Stalinist British Communist Party ever since Britain's first entry into the EEC in 1973, under Heath's Conservative government.

Of course, nationalism was deep-seated in all Communist Parties, particularly after WWII, due to the twists and turns of Stalin's policy and the British CP was no exception. To cut a long story short, the British CP had a big campaign to oppose the "yes" vote in the referendum organised in 1975 by Wilson's Labour government, which was meant to legitimise the Tories' decision on EEC entry - which Wilson supported.

It is worth mentioning that the result was a large "yes" majority for the EEC with a 65% turnout: 17,378,581 (67.2%) No: 8,470,073 (32.8%).

The CP had enthusiastically campaigned for a "no" vote, alongside the far-right's National Front and "left" Labour leaders like Tony Benn. It has emphasised its hostility to the "Common Market", and the European union from time to time ever since, even though its influence has declined along with its size. On these occasions, it quite unabashedly raised slogans such as "Buy British" and waved the protectionist flag to "defend British industry", if not British borders...

So fast forward to 2009, when the Bob Crow and "his" RMT appeared as the main force behind a campaign called "Trade Unionists Against the EU Constitution" (TUAEC), it transpired that it this not really "all their own work". Several Communist Party of Britain stalwarts, (like Brian Denny), were in fact responsible for pushing this campaign forward. Because, while the CPB itself has become a very small organisation, neither its decline from the 1970s onwards, nor the collapse of the Soviet Union caused it to disappear. Its daily newspaper, the Morning Star merely switched its source of funding to the trade unions. The original reformist and nationalist approach of the CP's "British road to Socialism" may have been slightly updated by the new generation of CPB-ers but its substance remains the same.

The TUAEC campaign stood candidates in the 4 June European elections in 2009, on a catchy "No2EU, Yes2Democracy" ticket. Its platform was a narrow nationalist one, which could hardly be distinguished from the platform of UKIP (the anti-European split from the Tory right-wing) or even the British National Party - except for the fact that point 5 of its 10-point platform was "no to racism and fascism".

These are the points in full: "We Say: Reject the Lisbon Treaty; No to EU directives that privatise our public services; Defend and develop manufacturing, agriculture and fishing; industries in Britain; Repeal anti-trade union ECJ (European Court of Justice) rulings and EU rules promoting social dumping; No to racism and fascism, Yes to international solidarity of working people; No to EU militarisation; Repatriate democratic powers to EU member states; Replace unequal EU trade deals with fair trade that benefits developing nations ; Scrap EU rules designed to stop member states from implementing independent economic policies; Keep Britain out of the eurozone".

In fact this is, for the most, a "little Englanders" charter, which has nothing at all to do with the working class. Bob Crow headed No2EU's London electoral list and the RMT donated £45,000 to the campaign. Despite its nationalist platform, No2EU managed to attract support from some left quarters, in particular from the Socialist Party which, despite its reference to the Trotskyist tradition, chose to forget about the internationalism this implies. It probably fell in with this electoral alliance purely because it was headed by a union leader who was willing to tolerate the SP's support and to sit in committee meetings with its representatives.

No2EU still exists - at least on paper and on and internet site kept up to date by the CPB's Denny, and it still campaigns for a referendum to get Britain out of the EU. The only difference between its protagonists, like Bob Crow, and the Tory Eurosceptics, is that the Tories think that British bosses would be better off out of the EU, whereas Crow claims it's British workers who would be better off.

In the general election of 2010, a new electoral alliance called the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was launched which involved the RMT and Socialist Party (SP) once more, but also far-left organisations like the Socialist Workers' Party. But this time the SP had decided to have much more of a say. So the platform presented much more of a "socialist" and working class perspective - standing for a "left wing alternative" to cuts and self-consciously adding in the election statement: "We also recognise that there are different strategic views about the way forward for the left in Britain, whether the Labour Party can be reclaimed by the labour movement, or whether a new workers' party needs to be established." But as a concession to the RMT leader (and friends in the CPB) who helped sponsor the campaign and sat on the steering committee, it included just a small point on the EU, for: "An independent foreign policy, based on international solidarity, no more being a US poodle, no moves towards a capitalist, militarist United States of Europe, no Lisbon Treaty."

In this year's local and London assembly election, TUSC again stood. This time the Socialist Party tail had decided to wag the dog, however. The RMT and Bob Crow were still speaking on the campaign's platform, but the literature, website and interventions, were more or less initiated, controlled and undertaken by the SP. And the main focus was the ConDem cuts. Of course it would have been distinctly odd to speak out against the EU in such a local campaign anyway.

Taking the Monti

But the RMT leadership carries on with its anti-Europeanism. Most recently in its May/June 2012 RMT News, for instance, it features a critique of the latest EU Commission regulations called "Monti 2 (1)" named after the current Italian prime minister.

This new rule will make it possible for companies to avoid respecting a country's employment protection laws, by allowing them to treat factories, building sites, or offices which they establish anywhere in the EU, as "their own territory" - a bit like a foreign embassy, with diplomatic immunity! It means that a company can employ its own contracted workers on contracts of its own making - since its "economic freedom to provide services" trumps the rights of workers to take action to protect their terms and conditions.

Of course this is outrageous and yet another attack on workers' rights. It is basically another no-strike law, one more among others that politicians are trying to pass. But to blame the EU, as this article does, for being the big bogeyman which is attacking workers, is to let the real instigators - bosses here in Britain and everywhere else, off the hook. Since time immemorial, the bosses have used the state and all of its off-shoots in order to facilitate their exploitation of workers for profit. The EU and its "commissions" are just more of the same. The many very "British" cuts in jobs, and in terms and conditions which have so drastically undermined workers' rights and their living standards over the past years are testimony to the fact that the bosses certainly do not need the EU to help them screw the working class. The only real protection we have is to fight back effectively! And there's the rub!

It is worth remembering that the employment laws which have come out of the EU have always been a double-edged sword. Their aim was to create a level playing field for bosses so that no country would have an advantage over the others, with regard either to allowing, or to flouting, workers rights. And it should also be remembered that Britain "plc", secured opt-outs from employment directives which delayed improvements of workers' rights like the working time directive (limiting hours of work to 48 hours per week) and equal rights for temporary workers. And when they eventually were legislated, special "British" loopholes were inserted to ensure that little changed!

The RMT's article ends - and this is a long quote, to give the full flavour of Bob Crow's offering: "the RMT has long argued that the "social Europe" agenda has always been a smoke screen to absorb the organised working class into EU structures while delivering very little to workers. Speaking recently at a People's Pledge meeting calling for a referendum on EU membership Bob Crow warned that unelected EU institutions directly represented Europe's biggest banks and their interests, removing elected governments and imposing mass unemployment, social dumping and unending austerity everywhere. It is time that the trade union movement demanded a referendum in order to build resistance to capitalist greed and austerity whether it's the EU or its junior partner, this rotten ConDem government, he said."

This is a muddled mixture of ideas, but there are answers to some of what Crow is saying, anyway. Firstly, if "social Europe" really did bring "organised" workers into common structures, that would be a good thing - but in reality all it has done is to give a few jobs to trade union bureaucrats - like ex-TUC leader John Monks, who became president of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) before retiring to the House of Lords, where he can still be found today! Moreover, the idea that workers should expect to have anything "delivered" to them by a "structure" in the first place, is one which clearly rules out the only effective way for workers to get anything at all - that is by fighting for it themselves.

Thirdly, "unelected" EU institutions may well represent the interests of "Europe's biggest banks". But which interests do "elected" British governments represent, whether Tory or Labour? Do they not represent the interests of "Britain's biggest banks", which they bailed out during the current crisis? And, what is more, did the elected "Commons" have a say about these successive financial bailouts? Today, how does having this British House of Commons help us prevent austerity? In fact most sensible people recognise all to well, that "elected" British governments only represent the interests of the City of London.

It is probably not necessary to ask Bob Crow if he thinks it is the British government, or the EU, which decided to make higher education unaffordable, stop the EMA, cut benefits, cut pensions, increase retirement age, refrain from building social housing and offer the bosses the slave labour of the current "Work Programme"! As for the EU being responsible for "mass unemployment" and "unseating governments", this is to confer on it powers which it does not have. The present crisis is somewhat larger than the eurozone - it affects the whole world, including the USA, where there is also "mass unemployment".

Finally, how does he think that a referendum called by the "trade union movement", on EU membership, presumably, can "help build resistance to capitalist greed and austerity"? This is just a gobbledegook-ish mix of illusions in voting, in propaganda campaigns and in the "power" of a spineless union bureaucracy - but above all, it is a way of avoiding the real issue.

The "trade union movement" - and by that Bob Crow probably means the trade union leadership - maybe could help build an effective fight back against the bosses and austerity - but first it would have to abandon its present "partnerships", its sectionalism, and its nationalist rhetoric, which help deflect attention from the real enemy - yes, the bosses right here on our doorstep, and their stooges in government. This is just not going to happen.

In the meantime, the working class has a difficult, but urgent task: to gather all its resources to try to stop the attacks being waged against it; to find new leaders and new battalions among the many young and unorganised workers of all nationalities who have come to work in Britain, in order to strengthen its ranks. Marx once said: "the working man has no country, but he has the world to win". It's a modest but necessary objective.