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UK Car Industry In Crisis

Saturday’s march on Swindon brought over 1,000 trade unionists together with the local community in a show of unity with the Unite shop stewards fighting to defend thousands of jobs threatened by the planned closure of Honda’s car factory.

This dispute goes far beyond keeping the plant’s 3,500 workers off the UK’s casualty list of lost manufacturing jobs; currently plummeting into the red at the fastest pace for six years. In the automotive sector alone Honda would be taking its place alongside Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Michelin and Schaeffler.

To win this fight our union must confront the duel challenges of an automotive industry, which weaponises its multinational power against workers, and the desperate need for a green deal for manufacturing to meet the climate crisis. Perhaps Swindon is the least likely place to host such a fight. But then, that’s the thing with globalisation. It’s everywhere.

CLASS spoke to people marching in Swindon to save the plant:

The Crisis of the Automotive Sector

The arrival of Honda to Swindon in 1985, like Toyota to Derby and Nissan to Sunderland, was supposed to be a triumph of Thatcherism. It was a model built for export, reliant on supply chains stretched across continents and a chase for foreign direct investment from Japan, Germany, America and later India. The British car industry had gone global. That this model arose in parallel with the fall of trade barriers between Europe and Britain was no coincidence.

Honda Swindon is the exemplar of international production. In a feat of organisational genius the plant is a global production centre, capable of producing 600 new cars every 24 hours, sustained by 350 truckloads of components whose delivery is timed to the minute from across the UK, Europe and Japan. Over 70 per cent of the finished Civics are then exported worldwide.

As a fully globalised industry the automotive sector is uniquely sensitive to disruption and uncertainty wherever it breaks out. It is only the strong collective bargaining power of over 100,000 Unite members which has faced down this threat to win wages, terms and conditions all considered ‘best in show’ for UK manufacturing.

Stalked by Brexit uncertainty which threatens this multinational model of production, the UK car industry faces a slump in production with investment falling by 46%. Brexit in turn compounds the industry’s global crisis of overcapacity, fuelled by falling demand in Europe and China, trade wars from the US and a painful transition to alternatively powered vehicles.

In such times of global crisis boardrooms weaponise this system, pitting workers in car plants across borders against each other in a constant race to the bottom for future work or else relocating production entirely to consolidate capacity or defend profits. Here we find the true reason for Honda’s planned closure: using the very real dangers of Brexit and the government’s failure to support electric vehicles as smokescreens to transfer production to the US and Asia.

When capital organises globally so must labour. The solution is not to compete against or blame workers in Japan or the US, but to organise our collective industrial strength across borders. Unite shop stewards are proud to work with our sister unions across Honda in France, Belgium and Spain, who’ve already taken industrial action in solidarity with Swindon.

The crisis in the automotive sector is complex, but the dynamic is a simple one. If Honda is allowed to walk away from Swindon every boardroom will be put on notice that they can do the same. Every car worker from Ellesmere Port to Sunderland - or for that matter from Gent to Guangzhou - would be the weaker for it.

We Need a Green Deal for Manufacturing

The future of Honda Swindon cannot be separated from the desperate need for a new green deal for UK manufacturing. Unite has published a sector plan for electric vehicles and sharply criticises the Government’s Road to Zero strategy, which wheels out the old myths of the free market, this time aided by arbitrary ban dates with their inevitably catastrophic industrial impact.

At Honda Swindon we see a fight for the future of an entire industry. Either Honda will be allowed to throw away the skills of many thousands of working people and decimate a community, or international solidarity will finally break the race to the bottom and secure the site at the centre of an ambitious, interventionist green strategy.

Ben Norman is a research officer at Unite the Union