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As the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) meets at its conference in Southport this week, they reflect on a tough year for British industry. Tory indecisiveness and disinterest in the protection of decent jobs has meant a clear absence in industrial strategy, which has led to the closures of shipyards, car plants and manufacturing works across the nation.
Founded on the initiative of the United Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Shipbuilders, who wished to create a counterbalance to the employers’ club of the National Federation of Shipbuilders and Engineers, the federation became known as the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades in December 1890.
Within a few years, 16 unions were affiliated, with a total membership of 150,000. Following a century where unions representing unskilled shipbuilding workers and foundry workers were included, the CSEU represented 23 affiliates and 2.4 million members by 1977.
However, the pain of Thatcherism struck the CSEU’s fortunes as much as any other representative body for workers, and by 2001 their membership had fallen to 1.2 million. Now the Tories continue their war of devastation on British industry, the smaller unions have since amalgamated into four big unions – Unite, the GMB, Community and Prospect. The CSEU represents workers in shipbuilding, aerospace, engineering, steel, and manufacturing.
As the CSEU meet in Southport this week, the CSEU’s general secretary Ian Waddell tells me that shipbuilding forms a crucial section of the agenda.
Waddell tells me that British shipbuilders are facing a “farcical situation” where “work is running out for British workers, but contractors from South Korea and Japan are being invited to build these ships while our workers are losing work in our yards.”
Of particular concern to the CSEU is the fate of a new generation of Fleet Solid Support Ships being built in the UK.
Waddell says that unions have heard “warm noises” from defence secretary Penny Mordaunt that British workers will be building these ships, which provide ammunition and supplies to deployed Royal Navy vessels.
However, he warned, while the bidding deadline draws closer, these overtures have “not yet been turned into concrete action”, and whether British firms such as Babcock, Cammell Lairds and BAE will win the contract is far from guaranteed.
Of similar concern to the CSEU is the effect of automation on the engineering and shipbuilding trades, and the perceived lack of effort of captains of industry to come up with solutions that accommodate technological change but is of comfort to workers.
Waddell says that the challenge of automation is already hitting some aspects of British industry. “In white collar areas of these industries, we are seeing lots of backroom functions going already. Functions that relate to purchasing, admin, design – these have already been badly affected by automation.
“In shop floor areas, we’re also seeing an increased rise in robots and “probots” – where workers are expected to work alongside robotic devices. There’s a lot of change already happening, and you can see that wave of change starting to accelerate across manufacturing and engineering.”
It is the job of the CSEU, Waddell holds, to “negotiate a reward” for workers out of the reality of automation, adding: “For companies to experience increased profit at the expense of working people would be an unjust solution.”
Pointing to a range of fights for the shorter working week in the ‘80s and ‘90s – fights that Waddell says are “part of the DNA” of the CSEU – he says that the federation will be building a campaign over the next year to enforce a decent strategy for a workers-first automation strategy that can make technological advance benefit workers rather than merely employers.
Waddell believes that the fight is crucial for all workers – and that if manufacturing and engineering workers win big, then it will encourage other workers to fight. “We believe it will flow to the rest of the economy if we can win it there,” he tells me.
However, amid the fight for a better workplace, Waddell also expresses the fear of trade unions about a no-deal Brexit, an outcome of the current political situation that is now openly touted by both Tory leadership contenders as a potential reality by the end of the year.
On the question Waddell is unambiguous, and sends a warning to the Tories on behalf of those he represents: “Like everybody else in manufacturing, we’re extremely worried at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
“Aerospace, shipbuilding and engineering all rely on European supply chains.
“Products go back and forth throughout Europe before they end on our assembly lines, and we have workers from mainland Europe working here and British workers over there.
“All of that would be disrupted by a no-deal Brexit, and we’re extremely worried about that, and by the comments made by Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson.
“Jobs going, businesses going under — that seems to be fine to them and a price worth paying. But it isn’t a price worth paying for us, and we are going to put up a fight with every fibre of our being to stop them going down that route.”
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