We can defend jobs without supporting nuclear weapons

We reprint this article  from last September in solidarity with everyone marching today for a missile free future

In the wake of recent statements by Len McCluskey, Ray M, an Aerospace Unite rep, argues that unions should support those arguing for a future beyond nuclear weapons.

(image: wikicommons)
(image: wikicommons)

The destruction of the world is not a job creation scheme

Len McCluskey’s recent statement on Trident has surprised and disappointed many who want to see an end to nuclear proliferation and Britain’s ongoing commitment to nuclear weapons. McCluskey said

Everyone would love the whole world to get rid of nuclear weapons – we understand the moral arguments and cost arguments in these days of austerity. However, the most important thing for us is to protect jobs. In the absence of any credible alternative to protect jobs and high skills we will vote against any anti-Trident resolution.

Unite are on the left of the trade union movement. So why did McCluskey make this statement and why was it delivered with such conviction?

Unite have had a policy that appears to oppose Trident renewal, but actually faces both ways. At the 2010 policy conference, an executive statement was passed that outlines the need for nuclear disarmament and says:

The question of Britain’s nuclear weapons system is not about employment alone, however. It is first of all a moral issue, and then a strategic one concerning Britain’s place in the world and the international environment we wish to see. Such weapons would, if used, constitute a mortal threat to humanity’s survival; they are massively expensive; senior military figures have described them as ‘militarily useless’ and said that they should be scrapped; and our possession of them encourages other countries to seek a similar arsenal while undermining the efforts being made by President Obama to advance the cause of international nuclear disarmament.

But the statement then ends with this concluding paragraph :

As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Britain should therefore give a lead in discharging its obligations by not seeking a replacement for Trident and abandoning plans to spend an estimated £76 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons. We need a policy that would see the jobs and skills of Unite members preserved, and until we receive firm commitments to this end we will continue to support our members and their employment. Money saved by ending our nuclear weapons system could be used to sustain the process of defence diversification, vital to our manufacturing future, as well as freeing resources for investment in other socially-useful forms of public spending.

The statement was sold to conference as being opposed to Trident renewal, while protecting the jobs of those who work on Trident. The motion was a fudge that has since been used by those working on nuclear weapons to blackmail the union over protecting their jobs above all else. The problem with the current position is that conference policy says that the question of nuclear weapons is first of all a moral issue, but the statement this weekend says that the most important thing is for us to protect jobs. This looks like principles are sacrificed at the first whiff of a challenge to jobs. Are we seriously saying that we’d defend any jobs at any cost?

Before the Labour Party conference, the GMB announced that 40,000 defence jobs would be threatened in Scotland if Trident was cancelled.

This figure is arrived at by conflating all conventional and nuclear defence jobs as if they’d all be affected. According to the STUC, around 520 civilian jobs in Scotland would be threatened if Trident was cancelled.

The argument that both the GMB and Unite leaderships rely upon is based upon myths and distortions. One of the reasons for this is the insidious ‘partnership’ that most unions believe to be the pinnacle of industrial relations. The TUC recently passed a motion (motion 3) that encourages unions to form partnership relationships with employers.

This approach leads to trade union reps seeing workers interests as being the same as the employers. When it comes to working with weapons of mass destruction, this has a corrupting influence on committed union reps who want to achieve the best for members but end up defending nuclear weapons at any cost.

Jeremy Corbyn has outlined a plan for converting the skills of those involved in maintaining nuclear weapons into highly skilled and well paid jobs in conventional defence or the civil sector. He is putting in place plans to set up a Defence  Diversification Agency (DDA). The DDA wants to develop plans to ensure that no jobs are lost with the cancellation of Trident.

Most unions are opposed to Trident. However, the GMB and Unite decision to back Trident is just the latest concession to the self defeating logic that nuclear weapons are good for jobs and communities. McCluskey and the Unite delegation could have opposed Trident renewal and argued for defending jobs by supporting the DDA initiative but instead cleaved to the right.

It is possible to challenge the myths and fears that prevent workers in defence from supporting a strategy of diversification. At the Unite London and Eastern conference of aerospace and shipbuilding reps held on 17 September, delegates discussed a motion that welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s DDA initiative. After careful discussion that dealt with delegates genuine concerns, the motion, which agreed to work with the DDA to transition jobs from nuclear weapons to conventional and civil purposes was passed unanimously. The conference agreed to send this motion for debate at the national aerospace and shipbuilding conference in November.

McCluskey said that without a credible alternative to protect jobs and high skills we will vote against any anti-Trident resolution. We now have an opportunity that will be put by defence workers within Unite to support the DDA and develop that credible alternative. Unite has agreed to support the campaign for 1 million climate jobs. We did this because we have a vision of campaigning for jobs that help us build a better world. Supporting the DDA initiative is part of a vision that looks at campaigning for better jobs that are a part of a strategy for fighting for a better future.

However, the debate over discussing Trident at the Labour Party conference involves another set of political calculations beyond defending jobs. Many assume that the Unite leadership are on the left of the movement with ‘progressive’ policies. Generally this is true, however, the trade union leaderships have always played a conservative role within the movement. The left wing upsurge around Corbyn has taken many, including trade union leaders by surprise. While most trade unionists welcome Corbyn’s victory and Unite did endorse him, he was not the candidate of the GMB and Unite leaders.

The GMB and Unite leaderships are using the Trident controversy to remind Corbyn of their powerbase within the Labour Party. They are playing the role that trade union leaders have always played when the left is on the ascendancy, the role of a conservative social block that aims to maintain control of the Labour Party. Regardless of machinations within the Labour Party, the Unite leadership will have an opportunity to support working with the DDA and developing a strategy to begin building an alternative to nuclear weapons at the industrial sector conferences in November. Defence workers in Unite will be pushing for change with or without the unite leadership. Let’s hope the rest of the left who dominate the leadership of the union will support those arguing for a strategy that is campaigning for a future beyond nuclear weapons.


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