When Len McCluskey denounced “treacherous” Labour MPs last week for attacking leader Jeremy Corbyn it seemed a welcome intervention from the head of the party’s biggest donor.
But the Unite union general secretary never makes a move without careful thought. The next day McCluskey declared that Labour MPs would get a free vote on the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons later this year.
He added that Corbyn should be “clearer about it”, and that this would mean Trident replacement “will go through comfortably in parliament”.
Like the GMB union, Unite depressingly argues to back Trident to defend jobs.
But many of those who backed Corbyn for leader agree with his opposition to nukes and want to see Labour oppose Trident. Scottish Labour backs Corbyn’s position.
The Unite and GMB leadership are out of step with this mood and that of most of the trade union movement. The TUC opposes Trident and several unions are nationally affiliated to anti-nuclear campaign group CND.
At last month’s Scottish TUC (STUC) conference the GMB attempted to overturn opposition to Trident, arguing that “any self-respecting trade union” must defend its members’ jobs.
Its motion failed miserably. But it sparked debate about defence jobs.
John Dolan, a retired Glasgow Clyde shipyard worker, told Socialist Worker, “GMB is the only union to stand up and say these jobs are necessary.”
Having watched an industry decline, his pessimism is informed by experience. “In a two-mile stretch of the Clyde there used to be 19 shipyards”, he said, “now there’s two. We need to defend highly skilled jobs.”
Thousands of workers and their families depend on defence jobs. This was underlined by news shortly after the STUC conference that 800 jobs could go at arms manufacturer BAE’s Glasgow shipyards.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is BAE’s sole customer for its Govan and Scotstoun yards. Delays in the MoD contract to build new warships have triggered fears of redundancies.
Westminster promised to build 13 navy frigates there as part of its blackmail to get out the vote against Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.
That was then cut to eight frigates last year. Now even these could be delayed to 2017. Such a history should make workers think twice about lining up to call for more arms spending.
While socialists back workers fighting to defend their jobs, we don’t argue to build warships and bombs. It’s not in the interest of workers to defend an industry of mass destruction that is used to slaughter other workers elsewhere in the world.
We argue that military spending is not only dangerous, but is wasteful and should instead fund more socially useful jobs.
Arguing for diversification of defence jobs and defending those workers’ livelihoods is a crucial part of that.
“Our shop stewards have been arguing for diversification for years,” Govan shipyard worker Gus told Socialist Worker.
“Our skills could be put to good use doing steel work for wind turbines, bridges, different ships and a lot more.
“If we don’t diversify we’ll close down. We cannot rely on Westminster—look at what has happened with the frigates.
“The real story here is the yards are antiquated and we’ve been starved of investment because the money has dried up and gone to Trident.”
In October last year the MoD permanent undersecretary Jon Thomson described Trident renewal as a “monster” that kept him up at night. Costs are spiralling out of control.
By autumn 2016 total spending on the initial phase will be nearly £5 billion. Over its lifespan an eye watering £167 billion will be wasted on Trident instead of funding our public services.
Derek Torrie, Babcock’s Unite convenor for the Faslane and Coulport HMNB Clyde naval bases, has argued that “ignoring inconvenient facts”—that thousands of workers rely on Trident—“serves no one” in the debate. He writes in Scottish Left Review magazine that to do so will “further alienate thousands of workers at HMNB Clyde whose futures many seem keen to debate but few do so on the basis of truth”.
Yet focusing the argument on losing jobs only benefits warmongering politicians, who can pretend to want to defend jobs too.
Any discussion must also take place in the context of the dreadful effects of nuclear weapons.
Chair of Scottish CND Arthur West told Socialist Worker, “We’re saying to those trade unionists that are sceptical about getting rid of Trident, come and work with us and bring your ideas.
“In scrapping Trident we would have an opportunity to invest in the economy in other, more positive, ways and we have to take the trade union movement as a whole with us in that.”
But in McCluskey’s world fighting for jobs means allying the union with the interests of our rulers. He doesn’t mean using the collective strength of workers to launch an industrial and political fightback.
For him the “outrage” is that “12 percent of the defence budget goes to sustain US jobs”. The death that is a part of the industry doesn’t matter to McCluskey and his ilk.
If only they’d shown the same determination to lead a fight over steel workers’ or public sector jobs.