Socialist Worker

Reasons to be powerful—how workers can face down bosses' threats to move abroad

Does the Grangemouth defeat leave us at the mercy of unbeatable bosses? Raymie Kiernan says the working class is still a force to be reckoned with—when it fights

Issue No. 2378

Construction workers humbled a consortium of multinational firms with a determined campaign of official and unofficial action in 2011-12

Construction workers humbled a consortium of multinational firms with a determined campaign of official and unofficial action in 2011-12 (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Big firms can’t just up sticks and leave

The bosses like to cultivate the myth that big companies can just pack their bags and go whenever they want. We are told that making unrealistic demands for better pay and conditions will force companies to move where workers’ wages are cheaper. 

But it is not the case that corporations can simply breeze in and out of countries plundering at will. This is a myth designed to frighten us off from fighting back. 

Upping sticks and leaving can mean accepting heavy losses. 

Over time companies build up a way of operating. They invest in the physical things they need, such as buildings, machinery and equipment. Supply chains and distribution networks are developed, not to mention the costs associated with training a workforce to put all this to use and make a profit.

Shifting all this can be very costly. 

This is not to say capitalists don’t scour many countries in search of lower cost workers to exploit. But although wages may be cheaper in China or eastern Europe than Grangemouth, relocating an entire petrochemical plant is not.

Taking a pay cut doesn’t stop job cuts

The threat of closure can create shock and fear. Expecting to be thrown on the dole queue can make the idea of doing anything to save jobs an attractive option. But selling our terms and conditions to keep our jobs doesn’t necessarily save them.

It can simply postpone the axe for when bosses next go on the attack. And it tells bosses that they can keep coming back for more. 

Trade unions may argue that the main priority is to secure employment for their members and keep a workplace open— whatever the cost.

But this just encourages a race to the bottom and hands victory to the employers.

The bosses will always face the same pressures to cut costs to compete with their rivals. And this will continue to bring them back with more demands for cuts.

Signing up to a rotten deal also sets a precedent for other bosses to follow. 

But in many companies this year strikes have stopped attacks on pay. Strikes at Hovis in Wigan stopped zero hours contracts.

Winning victories like these can set examples for other workers to follow.

The starting point when faced with an employers’ offensive is not to haggle over where their axe should fall. It’s to show them that they will face resistance.

And to win against the bosses workers must use their industrial muscle.

Bosses can’t do without the state

Mass picket of striking Hovis workers in September this year

Mass picket of striking Hovis workers in September this year (Pic: Gary Frodsham)


Politicians like to say that job losses and attacks on conditions are nothing to do with them. They say that they can’t interfere with the bosses’ business—that’s the job of the market.

This is a convenient excuse for ignoring workers’ demands. But they throw it out of the window as soon as the bosses want attention.

Anyone who thinks that governments are powerless to intervene in the economy should look back to 2008, and the massive state bailouts for the banks that followed the economic crash.

The British state decided it had to nationalise three banks in order to save them—whatever the principles of the market say. 

 

When it comes to workers’ demands it’s a very different story.

But a real campaign to nationalise Grangemouth would have been very hard for the weak and divided Tories to ignore. It could have made David Cameron fear losing the referendum on Scottish independence.

Capitalists like to act like they can ignore the state, but in reality they need it—and in a much more day to day way than just being bailed out of a crisis.

From educating workers or keeping them healthy, to building infrastructure and developing technology, the state plays a central role in the maintenance of the economy. Bosses like to wriggle out of paying for these services when they can. But they can’t make a profit without them.

So while corporations can exercise a huge influence over government policies, pressure on governments can force them to intervene. 

The state itself is Britain’s biggest employer, with nearly 6 million public sector workers. Their vital role in the economy gives them immense power to strike—and the wage deals they win or lose can set the standard for private sector bosses.

Workers are the real wealth creators

 

 

Bosses call themselves wealth creators. But everything they have comes from other people’s work.

Everything that capitalism produces relies on what we do as workers. This means that when workers act collectively they hold the real power in society. The British economy has changed in recent decades, but this fact remains constant.

Workers walking out or sitting in at a call centre can hit their bosses just as hard as in a factory or coal mine. And some groups of workers in key sectors of the economy have more power than ever before.

New technologies mean that companies in manufacturing and distribution can often rely on very small groups of workers at key points in the production process.

One example is the “just in time” method of organisation, used to save on storage and logistics costs by corporations ranging from supermarkets to carmakers.

But relying on a small group of workers means that bosses are extra vulnerable when those workers fight back. It means that a strike in one section can have an immediate impact up and down the production chain.

Almost all of Scotland’s oil passes through Grangemouth. A strike can mean panic at the petrol pumps and grounded planes at airports. That’s why workers there have such a history of striking—and winning. And they can still vote no to Ratcliffe’s rotten deal in an ongoing consultation.

No matter how the bosses reorganise their operations, they can’t do without their workers.

The anti-union laws are a good example of this. Margaret Thatcher’s government was so afraid of unofficial strikes she made them illegal. Yet whenever workers have defied these laws collectively—like the Glasgow social workers did in September—bosses haven’t dared prosecute them.

A Labour government won’t deliver for us

 

 

Public sector striker

Public sector striker (Pic: Martin Empson)


Some trade union leaders are incredibly pessimistic about workers’ ability to put the bosses in their place—but incredibly optimistic about getting a Labour government to do it for them.

Getting Labour into office and keeping it there can become the overriding priority. It can make trade union leaders more and more reluctant to call strikes for fear of rocking the boat.

Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey regularly criticises some aspects of Labour’s record and some elements of the party’s leadership.

But even he is dedicated to a strategy of trying to “reclaim” Labour.

The last thing he would have wanted from Grangemouth is a large scale dispute that could have put voters off the Labour Party—even if it could have won results for his members.

But Labour governments have always tried to win friends among the bosses. They are terrified of being seen to oppose the interests of the economy.

On some issues Labour offers no alternative to the Tories. It left the anti-union laws in place for the whole of its 11 years in office under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The only issues where Labour has taken a stand are ones where it has had to respond to growing anger and protests from outside of parliament—such as against the bedroom tax and the blacklisting of construction workers.

None of this means we shouldn’t vote Labour, at least where there is no better alternative.

But it’s no substitute for using workers’ own power.

Read more

Articles in the latest  issue of International Socialism Journal: Neoliberalism and the British working class by Jane Hardy and Joseph Choonara

isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=921 

Can Len McCluskey reclaim Labour? by Julie Sherry

isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=912


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