Giant arms manufacturer BAE systems announced last week that it has cut around 2,000 jobs.
This includes more than 800 jobs at its shipyards on the Clyde in Scotland, and an end to more than 500 years of shipbuilding at Portsmouth dockyards.
Portsmouth workers were called into a mass meeting with the managing director of BAE systems last week.
“It was jaw-dropping,” one worker told Socialist Worker.
“He opened by saying he wouldn’t take any questions, and finished by saying we should go home and spend the afternoon with our families.
“It was as if he was talking about the end of a life.
“I kept expecting him to get some abuse from the floor but everyone was just in shock. He scuttled out the door and was gone.”
The announcement sent shockwaves across Portsmouth.
More than 300 people joined a Portsmouth trades council rally against the closure last Saturday.
There were speeches calling for solidarity between workers at BAE’s different sites in Portsmouth, Scotstoun and Govan in Scotland, and Bristol.
There was also strong support in calling for the nationalisation of the shipyard.
Some workers were frustrated that unions hadn’t taken more of a lead in fighting the attacks on workers.
“This decision has been coming for some time and our unions should have been ready to act,” one worker told Socialist Worker.
“We need to hit BAE and hit them hard. We need to strike or occupy.”
Another said, “We should down tools immediately and not finish existing work”.
The loss of over 1,100 highly skilled permanent and agency jobs will have a huge impact.
Portsmouth trades council has called a new protest on Saturday of this week, where a bigger turnout was expected.
The GMB is one of the main unions organising BAE shipbuilding workers alongside Unite and Ucatt. It called for a protest outside the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday of this week.
The Scottish independence referendum may have given a little protection to jobs on the Clyde where BAE also announced 835 job losses at Govan and Scotstoun.
Ending shipbuilding in Scottish yards would have been a disaster for politicians campaigning against independence.
But the real issue is how successive governments over the years have let manufacturing jobs go to the wall across Britain.
If workers occupied the Portsmouth yard they would win huge support.
They could also stop BAE bosses getting their hands on equipment worth millions.
And BAE’s sprawling empire made £1.37 billion profit last year. Strikes could hit these profits hard.
Thousands of people have signed a government e-petition against the closure.
And a Save Portsmouth Shipyard page on Facebook has attracted more than 70,000 likes.
This shows there is tremendous support for the workers. But it will take a serious campaign of strikes or occupations across BAE to save jobs.
Cut warships, save jobs
The jobs at BAE systems have hinged on contracts to build warships and aircraft carriers for Britain’s armed forces.
This has led some in the trade union movement to speak out against defence spending cuts.
But these contracts are to build imperialist killing machines.
Why should workers’ jobs depend on them?
The skills and equipment at BAE’s shipyards should not be allowed to go to waste.
They could be used to make socially useful equipment—such as the newly developed floating wind turbines that can generate clean and safe electricity.
The yards should also be nationalised to save jobs—and to put the equipment there to good use.
We’re united against the BAE bosses
BAE has been dropping hints about huge job losses for several years—but workers in Portsmouth expected the axe to fall on Scotland.
Most reports of the massive job losses at the shipyards have tried to make this a story about Scottish workers pitted against workers in Portsmouth.
Yet those faced with losing their jobs are determined to resist attempts to play workers off against each other.
“This is a state of the art yard compared to those up north, so this is a complete U-turn,” said one Portsmouth worker.
“Now we have the press constantly asking if there’s a divide between us and the workers in Scotland.
“But we don’t want to go down that road at all. There are people from the unions in Scotland coming on our protest.
“They’re not ‘taking our jobs’—they’ve got 835 job losses themselves.
“It’s not about English against Scottish, it’s about workers against BAE bosses.”
And workers in the Govan shipyard told Socialist Worker they support their colleagues south of the border.
“It’s a real shame about Portsmouth, as well as the job losses here,” said one.
“We don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs—we need to protect shipbuilding for the future.”
Politicians seize on row to further own ends
The row over the future of shipbuilding in Britain since the announcement of over 2,000 job losses has shown up politicians’ self-interest.
In Scotland, the anti-independence camp argument seems to be that saving workers’ jobs is dependent on the outcome of next year’s Scottish independence referendum.
Local Labour MP Ian Davidson argued that a “break clause” should be included in the deal securing the future of 1,500 jobs at the Glasgow shipyards.
Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael said that after independence the government wouldn’t just hand contracts to Scotland when they can stay south of the border.
What they are both trying to do is make people vote against independence in 2014.
And the Scottish nationalists seem more worried about their argument for independence being weakened than protecting workers’ jobs and conditions.
This can be seen in the way Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, supported attacks on workers’ conditions and conceded to bosses at Grangemouth petrochemical plant.
Fighting austerity can’t wait until after the referendum—too much is at stake. The left must argue for that to be central to the Yes campaign.