The Union Card

Written By: Len McCluskey
Published: April 8, 2017 Last modified: April 11, 2017

I have been meeting with General Motors’ senior executives, at their Detroit headquarters and in London, over many years. We first held talks when GM’s prospects in Europe began to look shaky, as it started to lose billions in the market, and continued right up to the day the sale of Vauxhall to the PSA group was confirmed on March 6. I continue to work with PSA to secure the long-term future of the UK plants and the tens of thousands of workers depending on them.

Unite called for talks in the US with Ford bosses when it emerged last autumn that planned production of the new Dragon engine was to be cut in half from 2018. I was extremely concerned about the implications of this scaling back of investment for Ford’s Bridgend engine plant and I called an emergency meeting of senior Unite Ford officials.

How my opponent in the Unite general secretary election could accuse me of only taking an interest in auto industry jobs because of that election is an insult to the work this union has been doing, day and night, to defend our plants. Especially so given that in all the years that opponent has been Unite’s regional secretary in the West Midlands, he has set foot just once inside the workplace of our Jaguar Land Rover members in Solihull.

I have enjoyed a long association with JLR, including negotiating directly with Tata Motors chairman Cyrus Mistry, along with our convenors from all sites – perhaps a reason I have the support of all six JLR plants in this election.

I will certainly take no lessons from someone who has shown such little interest in the factories in his own back yard.

Our Vauxhall branches at Ellesmere Port and Luton nominated me for GS. They did so because of my long-demonstrated determination to secure a future for those working in an industry that faces many challenges, including a hard Brexit and automation.

Their nominations show that our members recognise Unite needs a leader who understands these challenges and is prepared to work with the government and employers to create decent jobs, maintain our place as a world-class industry and ensure the voice of a highly skilled and dedicated workforce is heard loud and clear.

Like Brexit, automation is casting a long shadow over the car industry. The replacement of workers by robots is an issue facing all parts of manufacturing and many service sectors, but it’s currently focussed on the motor industry above all.

An estimated 1.6 million manufacturing and production jobs will be lost globally due to automation between 2015 and 2020. Of course, automation could be a good thing for industry and society, if handled in the right way – which means not seeing it as just another opportunity to cut jobs and costs and make a fatter profit. It should instead be a chance for a shorter working week with no loss in pay, or the gateway to a nationwide programme of re-skilling and up-skilling existing workers, while also creating new training and apprenticeship schemes.

Which is why I have called on the government to take the lead in setting up a Future of Automation Commission, involving unions, employers, researchers and academics to find workable solutions to automation, opportunity and threat as it simultaneously is.

We need to recognise it as the new industrial revolution and to meet that challenge. Brexit and automation point up the pre-existing vulnerabilities of an industry mostly controlled from abroad, dependent on investment  made with an eye to maximum profit in a globalised economy.

I am determined that the issue of market access is at the front and centre in the Brexit negotiations. The government itself acknowledged as much when it signed a deal with Nissan to protect the plant at Sunderland, a vital element in the North East’s economy. Unite welcomed that, though we still don’t know what was in the deal. And Nissan’s post-Brexit future is far from certain.

A case-by-case solution is not enough. Big investment decisions affecting Vauxhall, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Ford and others are not going to wait for a few years while the government sorts out its Brexit agreement with Europe.

This is why I have no truck with those who take a casual attitude towards Brexit, or who write off single market access. And no truck with any trade unionist prepared to attack his own union by seeking to undermine and diminish its proud history of defending our members’ jobs, pay and conditions, fighting for investment in their industries, for quality apprenticeships and skills and against the rise of insecure working, leading from the front in campaigning for a better future for all our members, their families and their communities.