Socialist Worker

Can we stop this economic madness?

Issue No. 1695

As thousands of workers fear for their jobs 

Can we stop this economic madness? 

WHY ARE jobs in industry under threat? 
A QUARTER of a million manufacturing jobs have gone in Britain since New Labour's 1997 election victory. Now tens of thousands more are under threat in the car industry, textiles, shipbuilding and elsewhere. Economic commentators warn that half of Britain's manufacturing jobs could be at stake. One thing lies behind this-the insane logic of capitalism. The car industry is the starkest example. The bosses' Financial Times says there is "worldwide overcapacity of about 25 percent" in the industry. Car job cuts will devastate the components industry and others, like steel in South Wales. The car companies have all pushed up productivity and production, chasing a bigger slice of the market and more profits. They have done so on the basis of blind competition. Now they are churning out more cars than they can sell profitably. Bosses and governments everywhere seek to hold down wages to boost profits and be "more competitive". So car workers work ever harder to churn out more and more cars, but they and other workers cannot afford to buy them. The bosses then scream about "overcapacity" and threaten to sack workers. There is a similar picture across the world. Companies tell workers to accept lower wages and "flexibility" to be "competitive". But firms then can't profitably sell all they produce, and sack workers as they scour the globe searching for the cheapest labour and biggest profits. We are told services are booming in Britain. Yet manufacturing job cuts will have a knock-on effect on services. Services are also hit by the logic of competition for profit. Banks like Barclays have already sacked thousands of workers. A report last week warned the jobs crisis "was affecting all parts of the economy including the previously resilient services sector". 

IS BRITAIN especially badly hit? 
THE HIGH level of the pound makes the crisis worse in Britain. The pound is now worth over a third more against European currencies than when BMW took over Rover six years ago. This may be good if you are going on holiday abroad. But it makes British goods more expensive abroad, so companies find them harder to sell. The pound is high because of a deliberate choice by the government. The government says it has to keep inflation-rising prices-under control. Any inflation pressure at the moment is thanks to the rich. A report last week found that figures showing rapidly rising earnings in Britain were distorted by huge City bonuses. The rich use such wealth to buy luxury goods, fancy cars and shares, driving up their prices. Low wealth taxes in Britain also mean the rich, here and from abroad, buy up properties in areas like the south east, pushing house prices up. One way to control this would be simply to tax the rich. New Labour refuses to do this. Instead the government and bankers try to control the economy through pushing up interest rates, making it more expensive to borrow money. That not only hits ordinary people paying mortgages. It encourages speculators to buy pounds to get the higher interest. That pushes the pound even higher. 

WHAT CAN be done about the jobs crisis? 
THE GOVERNMENT could act to save jobs. Companies could be told they will be nationalised if they axe jobs. Rover could be renationalised and the government guarantee work. Ford made over �2 billion profit worldwide in just three months last year. It could be told to accept less profit to keep workers in jobs or it will be nationalised. If New Labour taxed the rich it would both help lower the pound's value and raise billions to provide jobs. The government could cut working hours, as has happened in France. Such a measure could help stop workers' lives being wrecked by long hours and create work for the unemployed. A 35 hour week in Britain could create a million more jobs. Cutting hours, without loss of pay, would mean less profit for the bosses. If they don't accept that, they should be told their factories will be taken into public ownership. If the banks try to block such policies by moving money abroad, they too could be taken into public ownership. New Labour refuses to do these things because it accepts the logic of the bosses' system. 

CAN WE force the government to act? 
YES-IF we fight. If workers demonstrate, strike and occupy we have the power to shift governments and multinational corporations. If workers occupied Rover they could stop plans to move vital machinery. They could also create a powerful focus for a fight that would win backing from workers across Britain. That could force even the most pro-business government to intervene. In the 1970s workers in Clydeside's UCS shipyards occupied against job cuts. They won massive support and forced the Tory government to intervene to save jobs, and the next Labour government to renationalise the yards. More recently, French workers forced their government to introduce a 35 hour week. And in Germany, just a few months ago, protests forced the New Labour style government to intervene to save tens of thousands of construction jobs. Multinational companies are not all-powerful. Strikes by British Ford workers could shut Ford across Europe. Dagenham is one of Ford's only sources for diesel engines. Ford bosses admit that action by truck fleet drivers here could shut all its European operations in days. The company could be given a choice: lose the billions that such strikes will cost you or use your vast profits to keep workers in jobs. 

WOULDN'T KEEPING car plants open and selling all the cars produced add to pollution, transport chaos and global warming? 
IF THE 20 million cars the car companies could produce each year continued to be sold it would fuel more transport chaos and global warming. But throwing workers on the dole is not the solution to environmental crisis. These problems can only be dealt with as part of a fight to challenge the logic of the bosses' system, which threatens jobs and the environment. Workers strong enough to force governments and such companies to save jobs can also raise the question of the environment. We could demand policies to utilise workers' skills and to shift production to things we need which are less environmentally destructive. We could produce better agricultural or medical equipment for the Third World, or machinery needed for environmentally friendly energy production such as wind, wave and solar power. 

WON'T ALL these policies lead to a clash with big business? 
IF SUCH policies were followed through they would meet fierce resistance from big business and bankers. But the value of the bosses' wealth lies in factories and machinery. They cannot simply move whole factories abroad. Nor can they simply brush off government action. Governments have been able to nationalise industries and force big business to accept it. But if such a challenge to the bosses' power deepened it would provoke a serious fight. The key to winning would lie in the solidarity we could win from workers elsewhere. A strike to save jobs in a car plant here could win backing across Britain and Europe. This happened two years ago when Belgian Renault workers occupied and won Europe-wide solidarity. A wider battle could win enormous backing. Imagine the reaction from millions of people worldwide if banks in Britain threatened to move money abroad, and we responded by nationalising them and cancelling all Third World debt. Imagine too if we took shipyards, and car, textile and other plants here, into public ownership, and workers began redirecting production to what was needed. This could inspire workers elsewhere not just to support the fight, but to follow the example. That could not only force the bosses and bankers to retreat. It would raise the question of what kind of society we want. Do we want a world in which people and the planet are at the whim of the market and profit-chasing bosses? Or can workers of all countries wrest control of the wealth from this minority, produce for human need and guarantee a future for the world?


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Sat 6 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1695
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