Bombardier workers have taken action against previous threats to their jobs

Workers must not pay for this crisis!

by Chris Stewart, Irish Executive Committee, Unite (personal capacity)

The announcement that 600 aerospace workers are set to lose their jobs at Bombardier’s Belfast site is a devastating blow to the region’s manufacturing sector. The announcement came just a week after Thompson Aero Seating announced 500 redundancies, following 430 layoffs of mostly agency workers by the company in March.

Bombardier says it will be making some 2,500 redundancies across its plants worldwide in response to falling demand due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This is a stark example of how capitalism responds to crises. Bombardier, a billion dollar company, is more than capable of keeping on their workers. However, the greed of the company’s shareholders knows no bounds, and the bosses would rather cut their losses to shore up short-term profits than maintain their global workforce. Many of these workers have given decades to the company, only to be thrown on the scrapheap when enough profits can’t be squeezed from their labour.

The threat of massive job losses across Northern Ireland’s manufacturing industry spells potential disaster for working-class communities. The aerospace sector alone accounts for some 10,000 jobs in Northern Ireland in direct and indirect employment. The impact of an unchecked collapse of industry will have a far-reaching impact across supply chains in Northern Ireland and could be devastating to the Northern Irish economy. Regardless of the roots of this crisis, we cannot allow these jobs and skills to simply be lost.

State intervention can no longer be dismissed

In response to the global capitalist crisis, governments around the world have been forced to intervene to protect their aerospace and manufacturing industries. The French government has announced a €15 billion intervention to support Airbus and Air France, as well as a €8 billion bailout for the car industry. After decades of neoliberal ideology that saw massive manufacturing job losses in many countries, as bosses shipped production overseas to super-exploit lower waged workers, the logic of privatisation and unregulated free-market capitalism has been shown to be totally bankrupt throughout this crisis.

Urgent action needs to be taken to safeguard the jobs and skills of Bombardier workers, and all manufacturing workers faced with redundancy, to avoid a disastrous impact that will be felt for years to come. No worker should be forced to pay for the capitalist crisis so shareholders can protect their profits. Any company attempting to strip down production or close down operations should be nationalised. With governments across the world being forced to intervene into the economy in a way barely seen in decades, this can no longer be dismissed as fanciful. Control of nationalised workplaces should be transferred to those who know best how to run them, the workers themselves.

Inaction of politicians

Despite the need for urgent action to safeguard the jobs of one of the highest skilled workforces in Northern Ireland, the political establishment has done nothing in the face of a potential collapse of Northern Ireland’s aerospace sector. This will come as no surprise to Bombardier workers, who time and time again over the past years have been forced to take action to defend their jobs against constant attempts to layoff staff and encroach on working conditions.

This latest round of job losses is yet another instance in the political establishment’s total disregard for the livelihoods of manufacturing workers. When JTI Gallaher and Michelin announced the closure of their Ballymena based factories, leaving some 2,000 workers jobless, the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP and Alliance did nothing to secure these jobs. The result was that a whole community was gutted of its lifeblood, while these companies shifted production to lower wage economies to maximise their profits.

For years now, government intervention and nationalisation has jarred with the political agenda of the main Stormont parties. The Executive parties have followed a neoliberal plan for the economy, seeking to court foreign direct investment with plans to cut corporation tax. The economic record of the Stormont Executive is one of misery for working-class people. Over years, we have seen the hollowing out of manufacturing in Northern Ireland and the proliferation of low-wage, precarious work in the services sector. Not only has this left the Northern economy more vulnerable to the impact of the looming capitalist crisis, but it also offers no future for young people looking for stable work.

Harland & Wolff struggle shows the way

In 2019, when their shipyard was threatened with closure, the workers of Harland & Wolff in Belfast showed how workers and trade unions should fight capitalist attacks on industry. When it was announced that the shipyard was due to be closed, the workers – members of Unite and GMB – did not sit idly by. Instead, they occupied the shipyard and demanded it be nationalised. This action received support from workers across Northern Ireland, and inspired other workers, such as those at Wrightbus, to take similar action when faced with closure.

The argument of the Harland & Wolff workers was simple. These are viable workplaces. They can, with proper investment, provide good, unionised jobs to workers for decades to come on the basis of doing socially useful work. Rather than being left to be asset-stripped by profit-hungry vultures and left dormant, on the basis of nationalisation, production could be shifted to developing necessary energy efficient vehicles and aircraft, or green energy capabilities, such as off-shore wind turbines.

The entire trade union movement needs to learn the lessons of the Harland & Wolff struggle, and needs to be prepared to take similar actions in the coming period as capitalists will seek to shore up their profits with attacks on workers’ wages, conditions and jobs. These actions can effectively put pressure on the politicians and can force them to take action. But we can’t rely on the neoliberal parties of the Executive to do what is necessary to safeguard the livelihoods of workers. They have proven themselves totally incapable of providing a future for working-class people.

We need a political voice for workers

During the Harland & Wolff struggle, the workers made it clear that, if action was not taken to protect jobs, they would stand trade union candidates for election in East Belfast to challenge the Executive parties. While the shipyard and jobs were secured before such an opportunity was posed, this shows the way forward for the working class in the North. We cannot rely on the corrupt, sectarian parties of the capitalist class to protect the interests of working-class people. We need a party of our own. Such a party – made up of trade unionists, workers and young people, organised on a cross-community basis – could fight not only against the mass redundancies we face, but against the effect of years of austerity and neoliberalism, for real investment in health, education and all public services. 

Under the capitalist system, profit reigns supreme. By the logic of this system, market collapse today means workers across the world will be forced into unemployment and poverty. The Socialist Party fights for an alternative to capitalist misery. We stand for a society where the wealth and resources are taken out of the hands of the profit-hungry capitalists, and put under the direct, democratic control of working-class people. On this basis, a real plan of production in the North could bring stable jobs and apprenticeships, providing young people with a real future, free from zero-hour contracts and poverty pay.