GKN Automotive manufactures important components for the car industry. Increasingly, this includes making parts for electric vehicles.
In 2018, free-market vultures Melrose took over the company. But recently, GKN’s new owners dropped a bombshell onto the workers employed there. They have declared that they intend to close the firm’s Birmingham plant, with 519 members of the workforce facing the sack as a result.
In response, workers organised by Unite the Union have delivered a thunderous mandate for strike action, returning a 95% Yes vote in a recent ballot, on a 95% turnout.
During the buy-out process, Melrose fended off accusations that they were planning to close down the factory. Rather, the investment firm claimed that they intended to create a ‘UK manufacturing powerhouse’ out of GKN Automotive.
These sweet assurances were spoken with a forked tongue, however. After biding their time and getting everything in place, Melrose has now torn up their previous promises, and has moved to gut their new property for spare parts.
Such a cynical betrayal is scandalous – but unfortunately not surprising. For the capitalists, profit comes above all else. Virtues such as honesty and fairness don’t get a look in.
As a result, new Unite general secretary Sharon Graham now faces her first big test.
“[Unite] will not stand by and let this employer offshore British jobs without a fight,” Graham has vowed. “We will leave no stone unturned in the ongoing battle to ensure the future of the Birmingham factory and our members.”
Echoing these fighting words, Unite has utilised the thumping mandate provided by members to declare an all-out strike at the factory. This is a welcome commitment; a swift, firm response that will no doubt raise morale on picket lines.
"GKN’s cynical attempt to close its Erdrington plant is a disgrace. We will not stand by and let this employer offshore British jobs without a fight..." – Unite GS @UniteSharon https://t.co/hzqSs7KEVg pic.twitter.com/nIGnqExNpj— Unite the union: join a union (@unitetheunion) September 13, 2021
In this context, however, it is likely that even an all-out strike will not be enough.
Melroses’ aim is to shut down the factory altogether, and to move production overseas. In a scenario like this, the bosses will wait for the pickets to go home, then begin moving out vital equipment and materials. Workers could soon end up striking outside an empty building.
This must be prevented at all costs. As part of the strike, therefore, workers must occupy the site and blockade the buildings, in order to prevent any asset-stripping.
This is exactly what workers at the Harland and Wolff in Belfast did when their jobs were similarly threatened back in 2019, occupying the shipyard.
“We run this place,” asserted shop steward Joe Passmore at the time. “We decide who comes in and who doesn’t.”
As a result, these workers were able to prevent the bosses’ agents from pulling any tricks – successfully defending their jobs in the process.
Today GKN Automotive from Erdington, Birmingham lobbying MPs outside parliament today. Thanks to @grahamemorris, @Ed_Miliband and others for turning out today and supporting the campaign.— Unite West Midlands (@UniteWestMids) July 6, 2021
“Back Us, Don’t Sack Us” pic.twitter.com/8yXydqeZVA
In a bid to save the factory, and their livelihoods, GKN workers have taken inspiration from the famous Lucas Plan of the 1970s – putting forward alternative proposals that would enable the Birmingham plant to transition and produce more parts for green vehicles.
The workers’ plans, however, have simply been ignored by the bosses.
As with the battle at Harland and Wolff, therefore, any occupation at GKN must be also accompanied by a demand for nationalisation.
Under private ownership, workers in industry will always be at the mercy of profit-hungry firms like Melrose – firms that have no interest in protecting jobs or meeting the needs of society, but simply in boosting the fortunes of shareholders and investors.
To defend jobs, save industry, and provide investment in green technologies, the profiteers must be shown the door. And this means calling for nationalisation, under workers’ control, without any compensation to the current fat-cat owners.
At the recent congress of the TUC, Sharon Graham spoke about how she wanted to stop “the political tail wagging the industrial dog”, echoing her campaign commitment to prioritise ‘workplaces over Westminster’.
The struggle at GKN Automotive, however, shows the need for the unions to fight not only on the industrial front, but on the political front also.
The promise of militant all-out strike action is a welcome step forward. But this must come with political demands for socialist policies, including public ownership and the planning of production – demands that must be fought for across the trade union and Labour movement.
In the final analysis, it is the anarchy of the capitalist market that allows scavengers like Melrose to exist.
Only by planning the economy along socialist lines, under the democratic control and management of the working class, can we kick out the asset-strippers, and ensure that no worker ever has to fear for their livelihood ever again.