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THIS year’s TUC Congress is addressing the crucial issues facing working people in the entirely new situation of the pandemic.
There are huge challenges — how to ensure that working people don’t bear the economic burden of the pandemic; how to protect jobs and prevent mass unemployment; how to hold government to account for its catastrophic failure to protect people from the virus.
While we want to end the insecurity and limits of the pandemic, many of us don’t want to go back to how things were before, to a reality already blighted by a decade of austerity and increasing inequality.
There has been a window of opportunity where it’s clear that society and the economy can be run in different ways; we have seen an increase in social solidarity, in state intervention to support jobs and changes in production to meet people’s needs.
One example of this is defence diversification. For years we have been told that it’s a utopian fantasy but urgent health needs meant that government shifted production from arms to ventilators within weeks.
This is what CND is addressing at its online TUC fringe, on Tuesday September 15 at 3pm: Defence Diversification: Its Time is Now.
Because it’s crucial that these changes aren’t just a flash in the pan.
The scale of the problems that we, as a global community, face are immense: interlocking crises that expedite the degradation and destruction of human life, our health, the environment and natural world and indeed the future of our planet.
And they all result from the way society and production are organised, following from almost 40 years of neoliberal globalisation.
In Britain, as in many other countries, the pandemic has exposed the disastrous failure of government policy which sees security in terms of the capacity to kill, and which sees national status in terms of possession of weapons of mass destruction.
This remains the primary reason for British possession of nuclear weapons — to secure us a seat at the so-called “top table” of global power politics.
But our politicians have failed to make us secure. For some years, pandemics have been designated as tier one threats to our security.
Successive National Security Risk Assessments have rightly identified such human health crises as worthy of the highest level of concern and planning.
So why was Britain unprepared for the coronavirus, with insufficient equipment, staff and infrastructure to serve its people?
But we don’t have to look far to see what has gone wrong. The last two security strategies have designated the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and use as a tier two threat.
Below that of pandemics. Yet the governments that produced these risk assessments chose to pour £205 billion into a new nuclear weapons system to “meet” this lower-level threat.
At the same time our health system was left chronically underfunded by years of austerity cuts and rendered unable to meet the challenge of a pandemic.
So the pandemic has also shown us what is possible. As the virus hit hard in the early stages of the lockdown, government urged rapid changes in industrial production.
Many companies, including those that that make parts of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system, switched to making ventilators, protective visors and other health equipment.
Initiatives such as the VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium involving defence sector companies like Babcock have shown that production lines can be repurposed when needed for alternative forms of production.
We want to work to ensure that production for public good is made permanent.
The experience of this shift in production during the pandemic shows the wisdom of the TUC Congress motion, passed in 2017, which called on the Labour Party to establish a shadow defence diversification agency.
The point of such an agency is to put defence diversification at the heart of a wider industrial plan that redirects resources towards things we need.
The purpose is not a top-down approach but to ensure a voice and role for trade unionists within that process, to listen to the ideas of workers for practical alternative plans.
Such an agency would also provide a transition programme to protect skills, employment, pay and pensions, to enable redeployment into new jobs, including the social care sector.
Now is the time for trade unionists to use their strength and organisation to make the changes — that we have seen as a result of pandemic necessity — stick, and develop them further: towards a new zero-carbon economy founded on the principles of peace and security for all.
Sam Mason, PCS policy officer, is speaking at the CND fringe and she is absolutely clear on this question: “Nuclear weapons provide no protection against the multiple crises we are facing, including an employment crisis.
“A defence diversification agency is an important mechanism to help protect defence-sector workers to transition into work that is socially and ecologically useful, as part of the zero-carbon economy we urgently need.”
We will also be joined by Bert Schouwenburg, former GMB international officer, and by Hilary Wainwright who was co-author of The Lucas Plan — A New Trade Unionism in the Making.
Please join us for this timely discussion; as Hilary says: “At a time of heightened awareness of social need, the depravity of wasting skills and public resources on the means of destroying lives, rather than healing them, is clearer than ever.
“Now is the time for trade unionists to reverse this destructive logic and take effective action to convert our industrial capabilities to meet the environmental and health needs that become more urgent every day.”
To register for this event go to www.tuc.org.uk/FringeEvents20.
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