Saturday 29 December 2007

Indesit follows Electrolux to Poland

Indesit have closed their cooker factory near Stoke, moving production to Poland, getting their closure in before Electrolux and with far less visibility.

The UNITE/Amicus press release is full of the despair that many manufacturing workers and trade unionists feel. Stoke has been hit very hard by the decline of manufacturing. The company I work for, now Fujitsu, used to (when it was ICL) employ several thousand people manufacturing printed circuit boards in the area. The plants were outsourced, downsized and finally closed.

I do think the press release goes too far, however, talking about there being "no manufacturing" left. I hear the same from many trade unionists in Manchester, where I live, but the reality is a bit more complicated. Nearly all the big old manufacturing plants in Manchester are long gone - these are the plants that were the bedrock of the trade union movement in the city for decades until the 1980s. So union activists see none of the old names left and conclude there's no manufacturing left.

What's actually happened is a combination of:

  1. The proportion of manufactured goods produced here has dropped (Electrolux and Indesit being just two of the latest examples)
  2. Productivity in manufacturing has risen rapidly, so UK manufacturing employment has plummeted while many parts of UK manufacturing output has not declined. For example, jobs in car manufacturing have been devastated, but the remaining plants produce more cars than decades ago. These aren't always the plants people think of, many of which have gone, but there are big Honda, Nissan and Toyota plants in the UK.
  3. The factories that remain are generally newer and/or smaller. As union recognition is generally established during periods of high industrial action, a high proportion of workplaces which have been set up since the 1970s are not effectively unionised. Smaller workplaces are also less likely to be unionised than large ones. The effect is that trade unionists are less aware of the factories that are currently operating than of the ones that we've lost.

I think "traditional" manufacturing in Stoke lasted a little longer than in Manchester. You can see from the 2001 census for the Stoke council area, over a quarter of workers were employed in manufacturing at that time, higher than the West Midlands as a whole, and far higher than England. The equivalent table for Manchester (the council area, not Greater Manchester) shows just over 10% employed in manufacturing. That's still a lot more than most union activists would guess though...

This might seem a bit obscure, but I think it's important to know what the problem is if you want to tackle it.

I'm not suggesting there are easy answers, but here are few thoughts:
  • A shift in government policy to see manufacturing industry as an essential component of a viable economy.
  • Better employment rights to make it harder for employers to up-sticks and leave.
  • Better unionisation in manufacturing. Despite the stereotype, most manufacturing workers are not currently unionised (actually, the latest stats say only around 23% are in a union - below the average for the whole UK workforce)
  • Stronger unions would open up more possibilities to fight job cuts, rather than just fighting for better redundancy money.
  • Stopping the thin end of the wedge. Most companies cutting jobs to exploit low-paid workers offshore still require production, marketing, sales, distribution etc in the UK. Uniting those immediately affected with the rest must offer the best chance of success.
  • Campaigning for more local production, linking with the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions.

What do you think?

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