The wrong red line: why Unite needs a change on Trident

Ray M argues that Unite members should support Ian Allinson’s anti-Trident, pro-diversification candidacy for the post of General Secretary.

Trident Unite renewal
Image: Trident submarine | bodgerbrooks/Wikipedia

On Monday (27 March) Unite members start to vote on who will be their next General Secretary – the centrist incumbent, Len McCluskey; the right-winger, Gerard Coyne; or the socialist, rank-and-file candidate, Ian Allinson. Over the next few days we will be publishing a series of short articles on the core themes of Ian’s campaign, which rs21 fully endorses and supports.

Opposition to the Trident nuclear submarine programme is growing across Britain. In Scotland, SNP MPs and MSPs are strongly anti-Trident. This is true even in Faslane, where, it is claimed, Trident’s cancellation would come at the cost of jobs. Nearly every national trade union is now opposed to Trident renewal. The TUC and STUC have both adopted anti-Trident positions. Even the right-wing Scottish Labour Party has voted to oppose Trident renewal.

There are also widely differing estimates of what the renewal of Trident will ultimately cost. This is because the government has held this information back, claiming that it is classified. However, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament calculates that the total cost of Trident will be at least £205bn when overspends and decommissioning are factored in.

With the bulk of the labour movement opposing Trident, and even leading Tories and military thinkers concluding that the programme is both expensive and obsolete, it is shocking that Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, continues to shortsightedly support the system’s renewal.

Both Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne continue to bang the drum for Trident, claiming that recommissioning the programme is crucial in order to protect workers’ jobs. In comparison, Ian’s campaign has consistently opposed Trident renewal.

Trident: part of the problem, not part of the solution

Ultimately, socialists desire a radical redirection of investment away from the arms industry and into green jobs and other productive, socially beneficial sectors. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that the bureaucracy’s claim that Trident renewal is good for defence workers is wholly untrue even on its own terms.

Estimates from the independent Royal United Services Institute say that Trident will absorb 35% of the military budget by the early 2020s. As an increasing share of the budget is directed towards Trident, jobs associated with ship and aircraft production are under growing pressure. For example, BAE Systems announced last year that it would be halting production of Type 26 Frigates on the Clyde due to funding cutbacks. Only the threat of industrial action in the shipyards protected jobs in the short term. These cuts were attributable to the growing costs of Trident.

We will find it increasingly difficult to save jobs and facilities unless we break out of the mindset that we need to rely on shrinking defence contracts and “partnerships” with the employer. We need to develop our own vision for sustainable development and production, and make the Unite policy of supporting defence diversification a reality. We can link our industrial power with an alternative vision that benefits our members and communities. This approach would also help us decouple Unite from a toxic partnership with the nuclear weapons lobby and the Tory government.

Opposing Partnership

Both McCluskey and Coyne support the discredited “partnership” strategy which has been responsible for the loss of jobs in the massive restructuring of the aerospace and shipbuilding sectors in the years since the Cold War. Rather than resist closures, the Unite bureaucracy has supported a “partnership” with employers. Throughout this period resistance has been discouraged and the strategy to minimise compulsory redundancies has been to promote redeployment (for those who want to transfer site) and good severance terms (for those who prefer to leave). This strategy has resulted in site closures and the loss of at least 50,000 jobs. All of this was achieved in “partnership” with the employers!

However, in recent years grassroots worker-led campaigns have pointed the way to a far better response.

The recent “Battle of Brough” campaign at Brough Aerodrome in East Yorkshire was able to successfully save jobs, and the site remains a viable facility today. A move by Unite members at Rolls Royce to establish a strike fund to finance industrial action against restructuring was enough to force a dramatic rethink, stop redundancies and bring about investment in previously threatened plants. It is possible to stand up to employers and secure a better deal for workers – but only if we implement Unite conference policy and break the “partnership” deals which accede to the demands of those same employers.

McCluskey and Coyne’s joint embrace of Trident shares a common root with their embrace of these anti-worker “partnerships”: both follow from a bureaucratic mentality which, when the chips are down, prefers to negotiate with employers and the Tory government rather than back combative, energetic workplace action for jobs and industrial diversification. In contrast, Ian’s candidacy points the way forward towards a fighting union that can build a genuine partnership with the rest of the labour movement in the struggle for a better future.


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