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We Can Win A Green Manufacturing Future Ourselves

In a blow to those who like their capitalists to look like straight-to-DVD cartoon villains, Elon Musk has announced that Tesla has chosen Berlin to host its new European battery and electric vehicle plant. As the trade union for over 90,000 auto workers, Unite members know a green future for the automotive industry is never going to be gifted to us by tax-break hunting billionaires. This election offers us a real chance to win it for ourselves. 

Musk – the virulent anti-union, share crashing venture capitalist euphemistically known as a ‘technology entrepreneur’ – blames Brexit for backing Berlin, claiming that the UK is too risky.

Those of us who think ‘hosting’ a Gigafactory is more akin to hosting, say, a parasitical disease than a Eurovision or World Cup final sees the UK’s loss as Germany’s loss also. It was however more embarrassing for Boris Johnson who had chosen the Coventry-based London Electric Vehicle Company as that day’s election backdrop. 

Autos, it must be remembered, is not a small cottage industry or a bygone relic of Britain’s industrial yesteryear. It’s an advanced industry built for the global export of cars, buses, vans and trucks, employing 823,000 workers across the country – 168,000 of whom are directly employed in the very skilled manufacturing jobs which are the historic backbone of the labour movement.  

Under Johnson and May, the Tories have let the sector be buffeted by a perfect storm, as Brexit uncertainty compounds the collapse of diesel and a contracting global market. Making matters worse, the Tory record on supporting green manufacturing reads like a charge sheet. Along with the planned closures of Honda in Swindon and Ford’s Engine Plant in Bridgend, South Wales, now the supply chain may suffer the closure of Orb electrical steelworks - the only UK-site which can produce specialist steel for the electric vehicle industry.

All this comes exactly when massive new investment is needed to transform the industry for alternatively powered vehicles, shared ownership models and even driverless technology. Elon Musk may be known for aimlessly blasting $57 million of his fortune into space at regular intervals, but even he (who, incidentally, runs an anti-union car plant where the serious injury rate is double the industry norm, according to the United Auto Workers) has clocked that investment in the UK automotive industry is grinding to a halt – down 80% in the last three years.

Rather than the benevolence of billionaires, what the industry needs is a plan. At this year’s Labour Party Conference Unite supported a Green New Deal, or as we prefer it, a Green Industrial Revolution, which puts automotive at the centre of a socialist Labour government’s commitment to hitting a net-zero carbon goal for 2030. 

This plan begins with 2.5 million interest-free loans to low-income households, SMEs and drivers in rural areas for the purchase of electric cars. Government fleets, from local councils to the NHS, will go electric by 2025. 

As these incentives stoke demand and lower cost, so the required infrastructure will grow with 72,000 charging stations to keep pace with Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. To end the investment strike, £3 billion of equity finance will be made available to the industry for electrification of manufacturing and assembly plants, along with £500 million for research and development. Finally, to meet the growing need, three new battery production facilities will be built as joint ventures between government and industry, bringing thousands of new jobs to Stoke, Swindon and South Wales. (Berlin can keep Musk’s ‘Gigafactory’.)
Behind this plan lies the principle of Just Transition. For Unite, that means more than a neat policy phrase to swerve difficult conversations. It means workers taking the lead as we change the jobs around us.
A green manufacturing sector which helps to meet the climate crisis while delivering secure, highly skilled jobs with union-recognised pay and conditions. That’s the prize to be won when the power of strong collective bargaining is supported by a socialist Labour Party in government.
The UK has the capabilities, the skills and a workforce ready to secure a future for an industry which benefits us all. We have a plan; now we need to go out and win it.

By Ben Norman, an industrial researcher for Unite the Union, supporting workers in the automotive and metals sectors.