David Swanson, IMT Edinburgh
The recent announcement that Michelin’s tyre-manufacturing plant in Dundee will close by 2020 exposes the harsh measures that capitalism will continually inflict upon society. A small group of elites prioritise profit over the needs of their employees and communities. In this tragic case, the lives of 845 workers have been thrown into jeopardy to further line the pockets of Michelin CEOs.
In a sweeping statement on the company’s website, Michelin blamed ‘low cost, entry level products from Asia’ for the closure. A web of lies was spun to convince the public that there was no other option; serious difficulties in the global market had made the plant unsuitable for regeneration. The crocodile tears of leading capitalists know no bounds. Michelin’s global profit amounted to €1.69 billion last year, surpassing figures from recent years. Rather than a last chance scenario, the corporation is aggressively attempting to increase the exploitation of labour to fatten the profits of wealthy shareholders and leading company bureaucrats.
Michelin is no stranger to the betrayal of workers. Many employees faced extortionate salary reductions in 2008 amidst the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. Ballymena’s site was closed in the north of Ireland earlier this year, leading to 860 jobs lost. In the cruellest of ironies, many were offered the guarantee of a stable future within the company if they were willing to uproot their lives to work in Scotland. Dundee’s fate has now been sealed at a time when Michelin have pledged to save €1.2 billion over the next two years. Ripping apart Dundee’s biggest employment hub since the early 1970s is merely the culmination of a well-oiled capitalist strategy to outsource workers to boost elite payrolls.
More still, the managers were aware of the plant’s closure at least a month before publishing the news. In a show of utter contempt to its dedicated staff, leading officials kept the news close to their chest for as long as possible. Even then, workers heard the news from local press and media before official sources.
Unfortunately the response from the trade unions has been extremely weak. Unite, who organise Michelin workers said the following in their statement.
“In September, Michelin announced a reduction in type production due to deteriorating market conditions in Europe, primarily due to an influx of cheap tyres from Asia and lower demand for premium tyres of smaller dimensions, which the Dundee factory specialises in.
Unite has produced a flexibility agreement which is designed to mitigate the current market conditions in order to ensure the financial viability of the factory over the long term. It was this plan that Unite representatives believed they would be signing-off after consultation with the workforce this week. Unite had no prior knowledge to the company’s announcement.
The flexibility agreement proposes a potential two-phase plan, which would be monitored on an annual basis. In the first year (2018/19), the plan would have seen the workforce voluntarily reduce by a number of jobs and a move to a different production regime of four set shifts. The current shift pattern is five set shift rotation on a monthly basis. In year two (2019/20), if market conditions had not improved, then Unite’s plan included an option of further voluntary redundancies and a move to a three set shift pattern. The flexibility agreement plan ensured no reduction in terms and conditions over this period for the remaining workforce. At the end of this period, Unite and the company would re-assess the market situation.”
This begs some big questions. Firstly, if the Unite reps had no prior knowledge of potential job cuts, why were they negotiating a flexibility agreement with management? Secondly, if they knew Michelin planned cuts for two months before the announcement, why didn’t they spend these two months preparing, educating and mobilising the members against future job losses? Thirdly, why are they echoing the Michelin line that this is down to Asian imports rather exposing the fact that Michelin make over well over £1.5bn/ year in profits, more than enough to keep this site open?
The Scottish government, along with Dundee City Council, Unite and Michelin organised an “action group”. This group came up with lots of great ideas about what could replace the Michelin site including hydrogen battery production and recycling technologies. However even if such a deal did go through it would not be paid for by the profits of Michelin (who’ve already received a £4.5m handout from Holyrood) but by taxpayers’ money. In the context of the current capitalist austerity this would be to the detriment of workers’ wages via tax or by cutting public services.
Scandalously, the Unite reps took the word for this talking shop and welcomed these “exciting proposals”. In doing this they have given (or attempted to give) false hope to Michelin workers that they can trust the words of Dundee Council, Michelin and the Holyrood government.
Workers have shown that they are not fooled by such talking shops. One worker, who had been with the firm for 25 years, said: “The past three weeks have been a political exercise to make it look like the Scottish Government, Dundee City Council and Michelin have been considering options that could save jobs. I understand they had to be seen to do that but it was never going to happen. It did give false hope to some but the majority of us realised that the factory would definitely close. None of us really thought the company would survive in the city following the original announcement. I don’t know if there will be positions saved for many of the young workers at the skills centre.”
Unite could have (and still can) organise a fight back against this. A mass campaign must be launched to have the plant nationalised under workers’ control. No trust should be put in the Holyrood government, Dundee Council or the Michelin bosses. This campaign must garner support via the labour movement locally and nationally and even internationally. Michelin’s home country of France is currently the scene of an extremely radical Yellow Vests movement which provides a fantastic opportunity for international workers’ solidarity. Unite must organise its workers to strike and even occupy in order to achieve this. If the current reps are unwilling to do so, they must be replaced by reps who are.
We cannot end the scourge of factory closures and job insecurity under capitalism. Any campaign to save this factory through nationalisation will have to be very militant and far reaching in order to succeed. If it succeeds, it would inspire workers throughout the country, who are sick to death of closures, cuts and insecure, low wage work.
Ultimately, we must organise with other sectors of the working class with the end goal of seizing the reigns of political power in order to end the anarchy of capitalism. In a socialist society workplaces like Michelin’s plant in Dundee will be nationalised and placed directly under the democratic control of workers’ councils. We can defeat this factory closure only with militant methods and determination. The legendary, Dundee revolutionary and trade unionist, Mary Brooksbank once said “ “I have never had any personal ambitions. I have but one: to make my contribution to destroy the capitalist system.” To end factory closures once and for all, we must channel this revolutionary Dundonian spirit and end capitalism!