Brian Parkin explains here why it is the duty of socialists to invoke the spirits of solidarity, internationalism and informed optimism and begin winning over workers to a re-dedication of industry to environmentally and socially beneficial production.
These are the key arguments in the latest rs21 publication ‘Diversify or Die’ which urges UK manufacturing workers to reject a continued dependency on defence contracts, and instead demand the chance to utilise their skills, knowledge and industrial capacity as the means of creating a saner, more peaceful world and a sustainable and habitable bio-sphere.
In June 2016, rs21 produced a pamphlet named Unite Against Trident, aimed at delegates to that year’s Unite the Union policy conference. In it we argued that apart from war, the world also faced another looming crisis of capitalism’s making; anthropogenic global warming, which, if allowed to continue unabated, could threaten the future of civilisation itself. But rather than taking a class-neutral position on these issues, we presented them as a combined threat to which the working class, due to its relationship with the means of production and its ever-present potential for collective power and solidarity, was uniquely able to respond.
Although our pamphlet was not able to singlehandedly reverse Unite’s pro-Trident policy, the union’s leadership was nonetheless forced, under intense pressure in a most heated debate, to promise a policy review on arms diversification that would take into account the issue of the conversion arms jobs into green jobs, which we have continually emphasised.
One year on
Needless to say, one year on from these promises and crocodile tears, the Unite leadership has failed to come up with a diversification document. Meanwhile, UK-made weapons systems – particularly in the form of strike aircraft, laser-guided bombs and ‘sub-munitions’ – now rain down on civilian targets in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.
And, one year on, with the realisation that production of the Typhoon Eurofighter is about to end, resulting in up to 2,000 job losses by 2020, we see the trade union bureaucracy go into ‘national interest’ hyper-drive in its calls for greater Typhoon export efforts and, even more absurdly, the call for a Tory government to begin the necessary investment drive in a ‘6th generation’ UK strike-fighter project.
Hence, the decision to produce a follow-on pamphlet, this time aimed at Unite’s industrial sector conferences, most of which will be either directly or indirectly engaged in defence production or its associated supply chain.
Of around 3 million workers in UK manufacturing overall, a staggering 400,000 will at some stage of their working year be dependent on the arms trade and its supply chain. Which, when combined with the very hi-tech content of these sectors, partly explains how the UK is the second biggest arms exporter in trade value after the United States.
The new pamphlet, titled Diversify or Die, whilst fully realising the scale of this dependency, sets out to expose how trade union leaders, through a seemingly hard-headed and defensive stance of ‘jobs at any price’, in fact invoke and reinforce the idea of a ‘national interest’ that in turn subordinates the interests of workers both to their employers’ thirst for profits and to the imperialist projects of the UK ruling class.
False hopes and waste
Another feature of the defence game that the pamphlet identifies is the unbroken history of broken promises to workers regarding job security in exchange for a lethal partnership between their union, the employers and carnage-inclined governments. A seemingly endless run of cancelled projects and end-of-the runway-failures have kept workers subordinate to hollow company promises, technological obsolescence and erratic and faltering defence budgets.
And throughout, with the very honourable exception of the case of the rank-and file-Lucas (Aerospace) Corporate diversification plan, the unions at official level have opted for saving defence jobs in ‘the national interest’ (or ‘the interests of the industry’), rather than saving and creating more jobs through the conversion of production to peaceful ends.
Such episodes of ‘disappointment’ have by no means been restricted to the Cold War period – indeed, they have been endlessly repeated up to the present day, with aerospace workers in Lancashire and shipyard workers on the Clyde now facing job losses in the thousands as follow-on orders fail to materialise and alternative production is denied serious consideration.
As part of a reformist labour movement tradition which is, at least notionally, in favour of ever-lasting peace and international good-will, the trade union bureaucracy is required from time to time to make noises in support of such sentiments. And, after the Iraq War, the general consensus on military interventionism across the wider left is one of “never again”.
But with the possible cancellation or end-of-run situations now facing BAE (aerospace) and on the Clyde, that sentiment has been hastily pushed aside by union leaders. Against the backdrop of an increasingly unstable, unsafe and war-torn world, Unite and union officials are instead begging a rabidly capitalist government to find export markets with despotic client states, who in turn employ this state-of-the-art technology of death and destruction – predominantly against unarmed civilians – as part of increasingly frequent imperialist proxy wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.
And with language reminiscent of works like Oh, What a Lovely War, Unite’s Assistant General Secretary, Steve Turner, demands that the Tory government heed ‘the wishes of the British people who demand that British-made fighters protect British sovereign skies’. Presumably, if we are to have a nuclear Armageddon, it is likewise important to ensure that the explosions come from British bombs built by British workers.
6th generation game
With the Typhoon order book now almost full, the unions have made no attempt whatever to exploit a marvellous opportunity to argue for alternative production. Instead, as a response to the RAF and Royal Navy purchasing the final word in ‘5th generation’ fighter technology in the form of the US Lockheed-Martin F35 fighter, the call is for a UK-led 6th generation strike-fighter project.
As the pamphlet points out, this is despite the fact that the comparable 35-year F35 project cost $1.3 trillion and nearly broke the entire US defence budget. All for a weapons system that, given the never-ending time spent on developing it, is already obsolete as it makes its maiden flight.
So from the unions- in this case Unite alone- in pointing to the waste, folly and sheer hubris of such lethal fantasies. No mention how in a period of ‘necessary’ austerity that human need demands resources and production over and above the ‘need’ for production for barbaric destruction.
Despite the hypocrisy of this grotesque expenditure in a time of enforced austerity for the working class, the unions continue to lack any vision of a future beyond imperialist warfare and climate crisis. The begging bowl of the trade union bureaucracy is held out for more of the same.
Diversify or die
We are under no illusion that the drive to alternative production can come without a fight. And in recognising this, our pamphlet tackles head-on the dismal inferences of generations of trade union bosses who have insisted that workers only act in accordance with a narrowly defined short-term self-interest.
Invoking a proud history of West Midlands metal workers facing hunger rather than making shackles for the slave trade, Lancashire cotton mill workers who risked the workhouse rather than weave slave-picked cotton during the American civil war, through to Scottish Rolls Royce aero-engine workers who refused supplies to Pinochet’s Chile, we attempt in our pamphlet to underline the consciousness and class solidarity that transcends short-term self-interest.
There is a choice facing workers locked into defence production. On the one hand, to stick with the hope of more of the same – job-insecurity, cap-in-hand subordination to employers and the state – all in the service of a profit-driven lunacy that thrives on conflict and civilian destruction. Or, on the other hand, to opt instead for the daunting but necessary challenge of changing industry and production, in an effort that will require honest debate, rank-and file-union democracy and the pooling of the collective ingenuities of workers and their communities.
Perhaps an encouraging sign in the latter respect came in the 2017 election for the post of Unite general secretary, where rank and file candidate Ian Allinson, up against a formidable union machine, gained over 17,000 votes on a manifesto in which key elements were for the end of the Trident replacement programme and for the union to campaign for jobs in a diversified and non-nuclear renewable energy economy.
Recognising that workers – already fed a diet of empty, pie-in-the-sky promises – will require hard evidence of a viable alternative, the pamphlet explains in some detail the kinds of renewable energy technologies to which arms production could be redirected in the here and now.
And in the end
Although we in the West are not facing the desperate situation that confronted workers one hundred years ago, the need to choose between “socialism or barbarism” is, nevertheless, still present. And barbarism, rather than being a stage to which humanity as a whole risks descending, is already a clear and present reality in the form of imperialist wars powered by weapons systems made by workers roped into it by the social relations of production.
As in 1917, workers today, in exercising the choice of breaking that pact with imperialism and its war-drive, can break the chains of their own exploitation and oppression. We have not centred this grand vision in our pamphlet, but it is ever-present throughout in the pamphlet’s argument that a better world is worth fighting for. One thing that is certain is that, without such an internationalist vision, the cause of socialism is lost.
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