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Shorts-Bombarbier sale: Belfast's disappearing industrty

1 June 2019

Shorts, the star in Belfast's tarnished industrial crown, has recently announced plans by its owner, Bombardier, to sell its Belfast aircraft wing making factory along with a similar plant in Morocco. At the time of the announcement they denied there was any plans to lay off workers but that it would “continue to drive ongoing transformation initiatives” to improve productivity and competitiveness. Which means both speed up and lay-offs.

The Belfast plant is already a loss maker, losing almost £16 m in 2017 and the workers have suffered repeated rounds of job losses, taking the payroll down from 5000 in 2014 to 3600 today, approximately half of what it was in 2002. Another 500 had been earmarked to go and the  workforce is now likely to suffer further substantial cuts if only the most successful core production operations for Airbus are saved.

With Airbus, based in France, mooted as a potential buyer Shorts faces competition from its Moroccan 'sister' plant which has a lot going for it, not least the absence of potential tariffs on materials and the ability to make a stable trade deal. Morocco already has “advanced status” as a free trade partner with the EU and since 2013 this is being developed towards a “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) between the European Union and Morocco”, a process which is ongoing.

As it presently stands, tariffs are not an issue for the factory's most successful products, wings and engine covers, and should the UK leave the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules the WTO has a tariff free deal on most aircraft components but WTO rules can change. Boeing has already lobbied the US government, which is ahead of the EU in making representations to the WTO, “to restrict reprisals to European aircraft to avoid harming American manufacturers.”

Even if this trade conflict does not escalate, the Belfast plant's post Brexit intake of raw materials would be subject to tariffs and there would also be a huge cost associated with any disruption of “just in time” manufacturing methods by the imposition of customs regulations that has been estimated by the company to amount to almost two billion Sterling for the overall aero industry.

Airbus is already stockpiling components to overcome potential supply problems in the event of any disruption caused by the UK withdrawal and the new CEO, Guillaume Faury, has drawn attention to the damage caused by “the worsening trade climate” as tensions escalate.

None of the potential buyers have yet publically made an offer but if, due to Brexit related uncertainties, Airbus does not buy the plant itself it is thought possible that Spirit Aerosystems, a US company that is seeking to diversify away from supplying Boeing, would step up, or, the worst possible option, a global private equity investment fund. Chinese operations have also been mentioned but whoever buys the plant, in the face of a looming trade war, demands for profitability are front and centre of all considerations. It is this which is at the heart of this sale, Bombardier has been consistently cutting jobs and had more planned and the new owner is certain to seek to 'rationalise their assets' leading to a policy of stripping the workforce down to the bare minimum required to produce the most saleable commodities, the wings and engine covers for Airbus.  Even then, it is recognised within the industry that making wings is not a very lucrative enterprise and resale of such a specialised enterprise has limited appeal, even though the plant has been highly innovative profits are what matters to all potential buyers.

Raising hell?

The last major industrial centre in Belfast finds itself a victim of the growing global crisis in capitalism. The competition between Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier reflects a splitting up of aeronautical production and the increasingly fractious economic relationship between the US Canada and Europe. The trade war with China and the sanctions on Iran are also impacting the situation and is creating divisions in approach between the EU and the US. The Victoria Nuland quote when the US was pushing for regime change in Ukraine, “Fuck the EU!”, is sometimes dismissed as a throwaway line but it indicates the same underlying tensions.

The internationalisation of production and its domination by global finance capital far ourstrips the internationalism of the trade union movement which in reality, on brexit and in general, takes an economic nationalist approach. Even though they adhere to the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC) which exists to ostensibly co-ordinate trade unionism's response to developments on a European wide scale the trade union leadership see it as a career opportunity for bureaucrats and nothing whatsoever to do with building workers international solidarity in action against international capital which is exactly what is needed in this case. Capital acts globally, labour thinks locally!

The Unite union has threatened to “raise hell” if the workforce is cut by the proposed sale of the plant. It is almost certain to be. But before the Unite bureaucracy's promises gets our hopes up it is important to recall that the workforce has already been cut by almost half since 2002 and 'hell' has failed to materialise. Neither was it raised when Unite members faced the closure of Gallahers cigarettes which shed almost 1000 jobs by 2017, and Unite offered only a one off protest march in Ballymena and their members had to settle for nothing but a pensions guarantee or transfers to Scotland when Michelin closed in 2018, laying off 900 workers.  Again, 'hell' was not elevated a single centimetre and it would be a fairly secure bet that the latest catastrophe for Unite members will elicit a similar response from the bureaucracy.

The attacks on the working class in the south of Ireland has to some extent eclipsed the attacks taking place on industrial workers in the north where, in an even more distilled form, they exhibit the utter inability of the trade union bureaucracy to defend workers from capitalism's profitability crisis.  Over the last number of years no resistance has been mounted by the trade union bureaucracy who are now left with barely a word to say, hence the overstated heat in their promise to “raise hell”.

With capitalism in the throes of a deep crisis the union bureaucracy, which depends upon crumbs from the imperialist table, is mounting no opposition and rejects any attempt by their members to adopt class struggle methods. They are ideologically wedded to this approach.

In the South they are fully on board with the state's 'recovery' programme which is suppressing wages, privatising services and with the admission of vulture funds to the housing market are pushing housing costs so high that it is converting working class lives into a desperate struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

They surrendered in the north over the Fresh Start initiative which they accepted was an attack on the most vulnerable layers of the working class but refused to fight in case it brought down the Stormont Executive. Now there is no Executive, the attack is still taking place and there is still no fight.

Having given in and refused to fight for the unorganised and more vulnerable layers of the working class against Fresh Start the bureaucracy now faces the possible loss of the exemplar of industrial trade unionism upon which they are traditionally based. Rather ironically it falls as the union movement remembers the centenary of the Belfast engineering general strike. The last vestiges of “Industrial Ulster” is crumbling before our eyes and the trade union leadership remains impotent in the face of the attack.

For even the beginnings of a fightback it must be replaced with a radical trade unionism built by workers from the bottom up. In the meantime the workers at Shorts hold their breath and hope that a 'generous' rescuer will emerge from the ranks of the competing aeronautical giants, or as appears more likely at present some of the smaller independent operators, encouraged by potential state cash injections. But, at the very best, any investor in a loss making plant will extract a cost for any investment they make by cutting pay, conditions and jobs. The workers at Shorts will then look to their leaders to unleash the promised 'hell' to protect them.

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