A strike by hundreds of workers at Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead has become a beacon of resistance to the jobs slaughter in manufacturing.
From car-making to shipbuilding, bosses have announced more than a thousand redundancies in recent months to protect their profits.
When Cammell Laird CEO John Syvret announced plans to slash 291 jobs by March, he hoped they would just be part of this growing list of layoffs. He didn’t reckon with the depth of workers’ anger.
Bill is one of the Unite and GMB union members who began three weeks of rolling strikes last Monday. He said workers’ anger has spilled over. “Syvret is vindictively trying to make money by laying off the people who have looked after him,” Bill told Socialist Worker.
“We’ve had enough of shallow promises”.
Brendan, a GMB member, told Socialist Worker, “They are just liars.
“We very rarely go on strike because we know what the shipbuilding industry is like.
“They treat men like they’re casual labour anyway, but the job cuts they’re proposing now are just too far.”
David added, “Earlier on they said if you give us this five-year pay deal we will protect your jobs. And 18 months down the line, they knew there wouldn’t be the jobs.”
I’ll still be outside this gate even if I’m one of the first ones to get laid off. And I’ll tell the Jobcentre, ‘Don’t expect me to go out and look for work, because I’m going to be down on the line’"Brendan
The fight at Cammell Laird shows that workers can take on the bosses and the working class power that comes through strikes.
Each day of the three weeks of rolling action sees a different section of the workforce strike. And all workers are part of an overtime ban that lasts for ten weeks until February.
Over 100 workers were outside the gates when it was the labourers and riggers’ turn last Wednesday. Brendan said, “Even lads who aren’t in the union aren’t crossing the picket line and only four have done overtime.
“And we know who they are and they know who they are.”
He added, “I’ll still be outside this gate even if I’m one of the first ones to get laid off. And I’ll tell the Jobcentre, ‘Don’t expect me to go out and look for work, because I’m going to be down on the line’.”
Support for the strike has poured in from across the Labour and trade union movement in Merseyside.
Bill said, “There’s been a lot of support from local people, saying, ‘We support you because we’ve seen this happen before.’
“There’s always cars beeping to show their support.”
Ross Quinn, a Unite organiser, told Socialist Worker that the strike fund had been inundated with donations.
“We’ve had £11,056 today,” he said last Wednesday. “We’re making sure that there’s no hardship for workers because of the action.”
This solidarity shows how strikes can become a focus for other workers’ anger. And workers’ actions have shown that picket lines are most effective when they’re not treated like just another form of protest.
They are there to stop bosses’ attempts to keep work going and minimise disruption during a strike.
A huge cheer went up from the pickets on the third day of their strike last Wednesday after another delivery turned around.
They hailed the truck to a stop and argued with the driver that the best way to support them was by refusing to go into the yard.
“A few lorries have turned around,” said Jason. “And a few have gone in, but we’ve got to try.”
Other sections came out during their lunch break to stand in solidarity with the pickets. Bill said, “The whole workforce is solid during the strike because we realise that Syvret obviously wants to get rid of us.”
The proposals to get rid of 251 jobs amounts to around 40 percent of the workforce. “They want to reduce our section from 81 men to 16,” he said. “This definitely isn’t about a short-term gap in work.”
Work in shipbuilding already depends on the number of orders a yard gets for building new ships or repairing old ones.
Brendan explained, “I’ve been in and out of work at the yard like a fiddler’s elbow.”
This means workers often have little employment stability.
“Once I was taken on at Cammell Laird for six to seven weeks and worked here for six months,” said Brendan. “Another time I was hired for two weeks once and I ended up working here for two years.”
He added, “If work comes in after you’ve been laid off, you get a call back. They’d like to change that so you’d have to apply again or go through an agency.”
Worker after worker said that they thought there was a “hidden agenda” to bring in full blown casualisation, with a workforce made up almost entirely of agency workers.
“We think that they’re deliberately delaying work coming in,” said Brendan. “Before we went on strike, there were no orders coming in.
“Then it was announced that Cammell Laird had won the contract to refit four ferries from Scotland.”
Bill said, “They are good lads, they’re hard workers and I’ve got some good friends among them. “But they are starting to take jobs on from us. And all the agency workers aren’t in the union.”
But agency workers aren’t “taking” jobs. They are being exploited by the same job-cutting bosses, who think nothing of putting their safety at risk.
As Brendan said, agency workers often work “without any rescue plans” or other health and safety measures.
And they often feel under pressure not to speak out of fear of losing their jobs.
John said agency workers “have been threatened and they can be blacklisted” from working.
The best way to resist bosses’ attacks is to forge unity among all workers at the yard and fight for equal working conditions.
All workers should unite together to defend jobs, and resist any attempts to divide them on racist or other grounds. The blame for poor health and safety lies with bosses who want to drive down standards across the yard and the industry.
Nothing shows bosses’ contempt for workers more than their disregard for health and safety.
As Brendan said, “There is virtually no health and safety training, everything is lick and spit.
“The health and safety team should make sure there’s equipment on the ships, but there isn’t always rescue equipment on board.”
He added, “Prince Andrew came to have look at the yard once—one of his entourage said it was like a working museum.
“And they would be right, it’s like going back into the dark ages.
“There’s antique equipment on the yard that should have been refitted or replaced by now.”
Bill said that the “health and safety team are governed by management”.
“So if managers say something is okay, they will back up the manager,” he explained.
A united workforce can also have the power to impose proper health and safety standards onto the bosses.
It’s not just the 84 hour week. With night shifts you could finish 6am and have to be in later that day at 8pmBill
The announcement about jobs losses is the straw that broke the camel’s back, but workers’ anger has been building up for some time.
Jason said bosses “make the rules up as they go along”. “If they take a disliking to you, if your face doesn’t fit—expect a grievance,” he said.
Brendan added, “They just treat the men like we’re scum. There’s not so much as a ‘good morning’ when they pass you in the yard.”
Workers now fear bosses wanting to bring in a “matrix system” for employment. This is based on points, using supposedly “objective” criteria to measure workers’ skills and productivity, which bosses rely on during layoffs. Bill said, “Managers are like their policeman. If they want to be funny with you, they can pick on you all day.”
Bosses’ drive to keep profits up also sees workers on long, unsocial hours.
John said, “I once signed up to working for 28 days but was asked to stay on to finish up the job.
“So I had to work for 33 days on nights without a break.”
Bill explained how night shifts can take their toll. “It’s not just the 84 hour week. With night shifts you could finish 6am and have to be in later that day at 8pm,” he said.
John added, “And you will be up all day because you can’t sleep, but they will still expect you to be in.”
In the face of all of this, workers have shown that they won’t just take the bullying and job losses anymore.
And they are determined to keep up their fight. The Unite union anniunced last Friday that the action would be extended from 14 December until 18 January.
The attacks at Cammell Laird show up how the system works in favour of the bosses and against the rest of us.
In a socialist society, workers’ skills could be used to produce things that benefit everyone.
In this society, workers are pushed to compete for jobs to make ships that will then be used to wage war against workers elsewhere.
Every trade unionist should support this crucial fight for jobs. But we should also demand a world where production isn’t governed by what helps those at the top.