Workers in Britain are threatened by a mass cull of jobs on a scale not seen since the grim days of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Tory government.
The giant Corus steel firm this week announced plans to cut production by 20 percent and lose 400 jobs in its distribution network.
The motor vehicle industry has also slashed production recently – but job losses are by no means confined to the manufacturing sector.
British Telecom this week announced plans to “outsource” 500 jobs. Homebase, the DIY retail chain, also plans “cost cutting” measures involving hundreds losing their jobs.
Economists at the Royal Bank of Scotland predicted on Monday of this week that unemployment could rise to 2.7 million by early 2010. That’s one in eight of all workers in Britain.
A vicious cycle is developing where every round of redundancies sows further seeds of slump. But there are radical measures that the government could take to stop this disaster.
For starters, the billions of pounds made available to the banks to prevent their collapse could also be used for new investment and to prevent workplace closures.
Britain’s collapsing car industry could be turning out new vehicles to replace the older, more polluting ones that dominate our roads. The skills employed at Fords, Honda, Nissan and Jaguar could be used to build the next generation of public transport.
Instead of cutting pay, firms could be nationalised to ensure that no worker needs to put in longer or extra hours just to make ends meet.
To do this, the government would need to wrest control from overpaid and incompetent bosses. Instead of everything being subordinated to profit, the wider needs of society would be put first.
Nothing this radical could happen without a tremendous fight. But if trade unions organised such a struggle, it would tap into huge anger among working class people.
Our union leaders need to raise their game and stop standing by as jobs go to the wall.
Some are prepared to discuss wage restraint in return for slim guarantees over job security. Others issue statements condemning pay cuts and extended Christmas closures – but shy away from even the most limited industrial action.
A serious campaign to defend workplaces against closure could become a national focus that rallies thousands and generates a politics of hope.
In the 1970s unions successfully tapped into a mood of anger among workers. Occupations of threatened factories were commonplace. In the case of shipbuilding, a whole industry was saved as a result of such actions.
In the early 1980s the Labour Party and trade unions organised huge demonstrations in cities that were badly hit by unemployment such as Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool.
The Right To Work campaign and the later People’s March For Jobs both received widespread backing from the trade unions.
They galvanised opposition from both management and their backers in government. Both believed at the time that a dose of unemployment was a good solution to “over-manning” and powerful unions.
We desperately this kind of action in order to stem the haemorrhaging of jobs today.
Workers who do take action against outsourcing and closure, like those at the port of Dover, must be given all possible support.
Town centre rallies, leafleting and petitioning, lobbying MPs – all these can mark the start of a campaign. Even where action is on a small scale, it can add to the pressure for a bigger response from the national trade unions.
But we also need to start piling pressure upon our union leaders.
The time for conciliation and doing deals with bosses to ensure short-term job protection is long over.
We must be prepared to confront both the government and the bosses to prevent a return to the dark days of mass unemployment.