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Bombardier threatens more redundancies in Belfast

JM Thorn

14th June 2003

Bombardier, the Canadian owned aerospace company, has threatened to make a further thousand redundancies at its Belfast subsidiary, Shorts.  This announcement came after workers voted against a new four-year pay deal.  Despite the support of the trade union leadership the package was decisively rejected by 60 per cent of the workforce.

The response of Shorts management to the ballot result was to announce the “acceleration” of a redundancies programme that had begun in March and to expand it to cover a further thousand workers.  Further measures announced included - a new shift pattern to reduce the number of people on night shift; the cancellation of all capital investment, meaning that a breakdown of major equipment would mean the transfer of work from Belfast; and the cancellation of the apprentice intake.  These measures obviously place the long-term survival of Shorts in doubt.

As well these threats from management the workers are also being castigated by union officials furious that their advice was ignored.  Kevin McAdam of the Amicus trade union spoke of his "shock and concern" at the result and urged the workers to re-consider.  Andy McGivern of the GMB reproached the workers saying that “there are a number of people realising that perhaps the company wasn’t bluffing, and the senior trade unions were telling them the truth.”

Clearly these officials see their role not as representing the workers but policing them and acting as messengers for management.  This was in evidence in the run up to the ballot when management and unions sent out almost identical letters urging acceptance.  The pay deal itself was the result of secret negotiations between officials and management.  There was no consultation between the unions and their members, the package being presented to workers as a fait accompli that they had no choice but to accept.

It included a pay freeze in the first year with a maximum of a two percent rise in the following years (in effect a pay cut); lower pay for new entrants who would take longer to reach full pay, would have 8 days less holiday and take ten years to get their maximum entitlement.  The deal represented a major attack on wages and conditions, with no guarantee that redundancies would not follow even if they were accepted.   Yet Andy McGivern had the gall to describe it as “a reasonable offer”.

The vote against the new four-year deal is a response to increasing management demands for workers to make sacrifices, and also a rejection of the role of trade union officials in backing up those demands.  This has intensified since 2001, with the terrorist attacks in the US and the subsequent “crisis” in the aerospace industry, being used as a stick to beat workers.  In September 2002, Bombardier cut 3,800 jobs in Canada, the US and the UK, including 240 in Belfast.  This was followed in March 2003 with the announcement of 3,000 more job losses worldwide, 1,200 in Belfast.  Now a further 1,000 jobs are under threat at Shorts.

Although Shorts claim this is a response to the rejection of the pay deal, it is clear that plans for these cuts were already in place.  Management are merely trying to shift the responsibility on to the workers, and putting pressure on them to make more sacrifices.  This has been the pattern in the past at Shorts where workers have been persuaded to accept new pay deals on the basis of saving jobs, only for redundancies to follow soon after.

Since its privatisation and sale to Bombardier for £30m million in 1989, the level of employment at Shorts has been steadily decreasing.  Over a fourteen-year period the number of workers at Shorts has fallen from 9,000 to 6,000.  With the latest redundancies that is set to fall to just 4,000.  Under the terms of the privatisation Shorts had its debts wiped out by the Government and since then has been a recipient of state funds.  It is estimated that Shorts has received £1.5 billion in state support.   Bombardier has also raised substantial amounts by selling off parts of the company – in 1999 it sold Shorts Missile Systems to Thompson-CSF for £37m and last month Ferrovial of Spain bought Belfast City Airport for £38m.

Profits at Shorts have also been substantial, regularly posting over £30 million annually.  In 1999/2000 pre-tax profits soared to £104m.  After a loss of £280 million last year, Bombardier is seeking to restore high levels of profitability.  Even though the company is out of the black this year, the drive for profits is intensifying. Bombardier’s Chief Executive, Paul Tellier has made this clear - “I am not satisfied with the first-quarter results.  Our shareholders deserve better and therefore we must improve our profitability.”  This is the motor for the intensifying attacks on the workforce, not only in Belfast but also across the world.

The role of the trade union leadership has contributed greatly to the problems faced by the workers, with officials backing every proposal from management for cost cutting.  They have also been dismayed by a purge within one of the main unions – the MSF.  This involved the removal of Joe Bowers as the official representing members in Shorts.  A member of the Communist Party of Ireland, Bowers had a popular following and had led opposition to the transfer of design jobs out of Belfast and exposed the company for making illegal deductions from workers pay.  After taking his own union to an industrial tribunal it was revealed that the MSF leadership in London had conspired with Shorts management to have him removed.

It is this type of behaviour that has totally discredited the trade union officials, creating a wide chasm between them and their members.  In many ways the ballot was as much a rejection of their leadership as it was of the deal they endorsed. Had they any integrity they would resign, but of course they won’t.

The rejection of the pay-deal has exposed the rottenness of local politicians, who fully endorsed the position of management and trade union officials, demanding that the workers vote again.  Although continually prattling on about democracy they are quite prepared to reject the democratic verdict of the workers.

This was the message from local Ulster Unionist councillors Reg Empey and Jim Rodgers.  After a meeting with the chief executive of Shorts, Michael Ryan, they demanded that the workers rescind their decision.  Empey claimed that - “The initiative rests with the minister and the unions who must persuade staff to get back into negotiations” Rodgers was even more strident, telling the workers that they were “left with no other choice but to look at this again and let the shop stewards go back to the negotiating table."  They repeated the myth that accepting the new pay deal would prevent redundancies.

The local MP, Peter Robinson of the DUP, in whose east Belfast constituency most of the Shorts operations are situated, played the chauvinist card expressing his concern “that the Canadian operation is being placed at an advantage at the expense of the Belfast plant”.  Whilst it has been mostly unionists speaking on this issue, nationalists have also supported the Shorts management.  This is has been epitomised by the ‘Andersonstown News’, a fervent supporter of Sinn Fein, which has hailed Shorts as a progressive company, extolling its chief executive Michael Ryan as a role model for young nationalists to emulate.

If the “crisis” at Shorts demonstrates the degree of rottenness of both politicians and trade union officials, it also highlights the failure of the so-called peace dividend.  The foreign investment that was supposed to herald a prosperous future has not materialised.   Quite the reverse is the case.  Foreign investment is in retreat.  Traditional industries in the north, such as shipbuilding, engineering, and textiles are in a terminal decline.  The hi-tech industries, such as Nortel Networks, that were hailed as the future are also in a state of collapse.  As the northern economy sinks ever deeper into dependency on the British sate, the idea, held by many republicans and some on the left, that foreign capital will bring about a united Ireland is even more illusory.

The threatened redundancies at Shorts and the political reaction to them show the urgency of building a movement in Ireland north and south that can challenge both the politics of the peace process and social partnership.  At Shorts, and in other sectors, we have seen these come together in the most damaging from. If a campaign to defend jobs in to be built the idea that foreign investment is progressive, or that workers must compete against each other on a national or community basis must be defeated.



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