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Trident—the jobs destroyer

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Thousands will march this Saturday to oppose the renewal of Trident. But Tories and some union leaders and Labour MPs say scrapping nukes means scrapping jobs too. Dave Sewell insists they’re wrong
Issue 2492
A Trident nuclear submarine
A Trident nuclear submarine

Is it really true that scrapping Trident nuclear missiles will mean the loss of thousands of jobs? For those who are in favour of keeping the barbaric weapons capable of incinerating entire cities, this argument is an ace up their sleeve.

It’s a row that feeds into the battle between left wing Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and the right.

Corbyn supports the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)’s demonstration against Trident this Saturday—as do many thousands of trade unionists.

The TUC is opposed to renewing Trident and the Unison, PCS, CWU, RMT, FBU, TSSA, Aslef, NUM and NUT unions are affiliated to CND.

But two of the biggest unions in Britain have taken the other side. The leaders of Unite and the GMB have publicly slammed Corbyn. And they have called special conferences in the run-up to Labour’s defence policy review that are explicitly for keeping Trident.

Unite’s Len McCluskey said it would call on Labour to, “Support British defence jobs and communities and protect jobs on the Successor submarine programme and Trident.”

They echo the arguments of the Tories and the Labour right—that thousands of jobs are dependent on Trident and would be lost without it. They insist they are speaking for defence workers otherwise left out of the debate.

But not all members agree. Ollie Jones is a Unite shop steward at Babcock-DSG Donnington where Warrior tanks are made and maintained.

“I don’t agree with the position of renewing Trident,” he told Socialist Worker. “They say it would cost members’ jobs to get rid of Trident—but if nuclear weapons were ever used we’ll have no members left.”

The branch has sent a motion to Unite’s policy conference calling on the union to oppose Trident renewal—and campaign for alternative jobs.

It’s not in the interest of workers to defend an industry of mass destruction that would only be used to oppress and slaughter other workers.

The motion to Unite conference calls for a Defence Diversification Agency that can find other work for workers currently employed in defence. It’s an idea backed by Corbyn and many others.

CND general secretary Kate Hudson, said, “Reinvesting billions in our public services and helping to regenerate our industry and economy through defence diversification will result in hundreds of thousands of new jobs.”

This can respond to workers’ real worries for their jobs and communities.

Unite union steward Ollie Jones from DSG Babcock in Donnington

Unite union steward Ollie Jones from DSG Babcock in Donnington (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Ollie explained, “I’ve seen it myself—when they announce defence contracts workers are hoping their bit is funded because it’s work for them. If they decide to cut the number of Warrior tanks, it’s bad for us.

“We’re talking about areas where whole communities revolve around that industry. There’s the people who make our pallets, who recycle our plastic, the shops that workers go to at lunchtime.

“You look at the coal mines and the devastation it caused when they closed, and of course people don’t want that to happen to them.

“We want the people to be still employed. But if instead of making tanks we were making solar panels those jobs would be kept. Across defence they are making cuts. An agency for replacing those jobs is something we should be arguing for anyway.”

This could make better use of the workers’ skills and the factories they work in.

“We’ve done work on trains,” said Ollie. “There’s nothing to stop us making wind turbines. They call us defence workers, but I don’t buy that. We’re skilled workers—we just happen to work in defence because that’s the biggest employer.”

These changes wouldn’t have to be bad for workers. On climate change the TUC officially calls for a “just transition” away from polluting jobs towards sustainable ones.

As it points out, if workers shape such a transition it could be “a positive opportunity to challenge existing inequalities and improve the lot of the least well-off”.

Applying this logic to defence spending—and Trident in particular—wasn’t always out of the question for defence unions.

One of Unite’s forerunners, the TGWU, published a strategy for arms conversion in 1983, and called on the TUC to campaign for workers’ interests as part of its peace campaigns.

GMB’s 1985 congress resolved “to mount a campaign using jobs with peace as a general theme to illustrate the massive costs of Trident, contrasting the lack of funding for essential social services.”

Today there is still widespread support for scrapping Trident. But these unions’ leaders have given up on convincing any workers to break with the interests of their bosses’ industries—whether defence, fracking or nuclear power.

But for Ollie this pessimism is unjustified. “In 2003 our branch took people to the big demonstrations against the Iraq War,” he said.

“Despite working in an industry that profits from war they recognised the importance of human life.”

Nuke jobs cost £1 million each

The jobs argument against scrapping Trident doesn’t add up. The numbers of jobs lost are often inflated and the jobs that could be created not taken into account.

For example, in 2013 politicians campaigning against Scottish independence claimed that 19,000 jobs could go in Scotland without Trident.

This was based on the assumption that the Faslane naval base would close completely. But of the 6,500 people who work at Faslane, only 520 jobs “directly rely on the Trident programme”.

The Ministry of Defence revealed the figures in response to a freedom of information request from Scottish CND.

There would still be a knock-on effect but no reason for one of Britain’s biggest submarine bases to automatically shut. The running costs of Trident come from the defence budget, and without additional cuts would be re-allocated to the conventional military.

CND argues this would mean more jobs—though it would be better to replace these with civilian employment.

A report by the Scottish TUC found that “the reduction in direct, indirect and induced civilian employment across Scotland would be less than 1,800”. These would only kick in after 2022.

The report estimated those running costs at £1.8 billion—meaning a cost of around £1 million a job. These are the most expensive jobs funded by the state. Most of it doesn’t go to workers. More people could be paid higher wages to do almost anything else for that price.

Last year the government announced plans to cut another 100,000 civil service jobs in order to save £13 billion from government departments.

If we assume that no saving other than job cuts is made, that’s £130,000 a job. That’s far more than civil service workers are paid, but around an eighth of the cost of a Trident job.

As well as its annual running costs, Trident renewal would cost £30 billion and probably much more. It’s impossible to put a limit on how high the total cost of keeping Trident would run. Credible estimates put it at £97 billion, £167 billion or £183 billion.

The Scottish National Party has calculated that diverting just £1 billion of this into infrastructure spending in the west of Scotland would generate around 15,000 jobs. That’s more than seven times more than would be lost.

More life after bases close

Even on their own terms, the arguments in defence of Trident are riddled with lies, inaccuracies and distortions.

But we need to fight for a world without war and weapons of all kinds.

This isn’t pie in the sky—and it doesn’t mean throwing workers on the scrapheap.

we need to fight for a world without war and weapons of all kinds

The US has closed hundreds of military bases since 1988 under its Base Realignment and Closure programme. It found that 73 of the closures affected employment in the local areas—and put government money into redeveloping them.

They have now been turned into research or manufacturing hubs, airports, hospitals and university buildings.

Government estimates suggest 99 percent of directly employed jobs have been replaced.

These programmes aren’t perfect.

Little is done until after the closure starts to have an effect.

Then public money is given to private bosses to redevelop for profit.

But they show that, even under these conditions, removing military facilities doesn’t have to mean a jobs disaster.

The funds freed up from Trident renewal would allow for a better solution.

Alternatives to destruction

  • Lucas Aerospace

In the 1970s shop stewards at fighter jet manufacturer Lucas Aerospace drew up a detailed “alternative corporate plan” in the face of redundancies. Shop floor and office workers looked in detail at how their existing facilities could be converted.

They proposed 150 alternative products they considered socially useful, such as equipment for health care and disabled people. They even made a few prototypes, including electric bicycles and wind turbines.

Workers in defence factories in Sweden and Germany made similar proposals.

The Lucas plan and others it inspired won wide support from many unions and, later, Labour councils. There were problems when union leaders used the campaign as an alternative to industrial struggle. But it helped shift the debate in the public and the workplace.

  • Climate Jobs

The DSG workers point to the Million Climate Jobs report launched by the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union group. It is supported by unions including PCS, CWU, UCU and TSSA and many branches and local campaigns.

Inspired by the workers’ occupation to fight the closure of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in 2009, it shows how jobs could be created to respond to the threat of climate change.

Many of these would use the same skills and equipment as workers on Trident and other defence projects.

  • Read more

STUC report—Cancelling Trident: The Economic and Employment Consequences for Scotland

CND report—Trident, jobs and the UK economy

TUC report for a Just Transition—A Green and Fair Future

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