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Proletarian issue 81 (December 2017)
Industry matters: Fighting the trade war harder

Bombardier is a Canadian firm with a plant in Belfast that is building the wings for the company’s C-Series fighter jets. Responding to allegations from its US rival Boeing that its jets are being marketed at below cost price (thanks to state subsidies from the Canadian and British governments), the US government has threatened to impose punitive 300 percent tariffs.

Now, in a new twist to this trade dispute, it has been announced that Airbus is to be given, free of charge, a 50.01 percent controlling stake in the C-Series project. This extraordinary arrangement aims to let Bombardier get on with building the jets whilst Airbus uses its expertise in procurement and sales to help matters along.

Among other things, this means that the component parts of the jets are now to be assembled in an Airbus plant in Alabama, thus evading import tax altogether. Boeing is unamused by this latest wheeze, tweeting: “If Airbus and Bombardier think this deal will get them around the rules ... think again”.

A company spokesman pointed out that the Airbus/Bombardier lash-up “looks like a questionable deal between two heavily state-subsidised competitors to skirt the recent findings of the US government”. (Bombardier to partner Airbus on C-Series jets, BBC, 17 October 2017)

The global market for fighter jets is no less saturated than is the global market for steel, cars, cocoa and every other commodity, thanks to the capitalist crisis of overproduction. All imperialist governments will employ every dirty trick in the book to beat their rivals, using subsidies, tariffs, sanctions, market-rigging and any other stick that comes to hand, all the while adopting a pious expression and preaching the virtues of a ‘level playing field’.

In this trade war that sets imperialist against imperialist, it is not in the interest of the British working class to support British imperialism against its economic rivals, but rather to wish a plague on both their houses.

Workers need to understand that increasingly cutthroat trade wars, with workers suffering on all sides, are an inevitable feature of imperialism in crisis and will end only when imperialism is overthrown. The last thing that workers need is to be turned into cannon fodder for imperialist wars, whether economic or military.

True to form, however, ‘left’ social democracy wraps itself in the flag – not the red flag but the Union Jack. Right on cue, Jeremy Corbyn popped up to urge the government to fight the trade war harder, accusing Theresa May of “foot-dragging” on the issue and telling her: “You must now act with strength of purpose in the national interest” and join the Canadian prime minister in summoning Boeing to demand that it drops its case. (Bombardier: Jeremy Corbyn urges PM to ‘summon’ Boeing, BBC, 2 October 2017)

If the Belfast factory closes, thanks to an overproduction crisis for which its workers bear no responsibility, those workers must demand full compensation, alternative employment and/or the opportunity to retrain – and insist that the real enemy is not ‘unfair foreign competition’ but capitalism itself.

The class interests of British workers will never be served by rallying behind the flag in the defence of decaying British imperialism, and least of all by championing the manufacture of British arms on Irish soil to be employed in imperialist wars.

Super Puma

The union Unite, which counts among its members in Scotland tens of thousands of offshore workers, has threatened to call them out on strike if a Puma helicopter with an appalling safety record is brought back into service. The model in question was suspended last year in Britain and Norway after the latest Super Puma crash had killed 13 workers.

After the crash, the operating company admitted that the same helicopter had just days earlier been forced to return to base after a cockpit warning light came on. A part was replaced, but on a test flight the following day the warning light came on again. Subsequently, a component was changed and a second test flight went okay, but just days later came the fatal crash.

Earlier helicopter crashes, some fatal and many involving versions of the Super Puma, triggered a growing wave of public disquiet. In 2009, sixteen lives were lost when a Super Puma crashed on a return flight to Aberdeen. Four years later another Super Puma crashed off Shetland, killing a further four people. Yet in October 2014 the government was still refusing demands for a public inquiry into helicopter safety.

Now, even in the wake of last year’s Norway disaster, the government is still eager to prioritise private profit over public safety, with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) arguing that it cannot ban Super Puma flights involving Britain until it is agreed at European level.

Oil worker David Winder, who started a petition to ban the Super Puma that attracted many thousands of signatures (including relatives of those whose lives were taken), summed up the situation: “We call on the CAA to put the lives of offshore oil workers and the pilots before vested interests, and revoke the air worthiness certificates for this aircraft. Failure to do this we feel will result in more needless deaths.”

Clearly, for capitalism this is a price worthy paying. (Should the Airbus 225 Super Puma be grounded for good? by Julian Turner, Offshore Technology, 14 July 2016)

May’s U-turn

As Tory knives come out for Theresa May’s scalp, the Daily Mail claims that a leaked copy of her original draft election manifesto included “tough new laws to curb strike action by key public-sector workers including doctors, nurses, teachers, customs officers, prison guards and rail workers”.

According to the Mail, she dropped this plan on the advice of aides who feared it could be a vote-winner for Corbyn. After the election drubbing she abandoned the Iron Lady posture, instead scrambling to placate public-sector workers by a partial relaxation of the seven-year-long cap on their pay.

The leak serves to show the emptiness of all the ‘strong and stable’ pre-election bragging. (As well as the U-turn over public-sector workers, the draft manifesto also wanted to impose a dementia tax even steeper than the one she was forced to backtrack on. The original intention was to take all but £50,000 of the savings and assets of the elderly in need of care, even worse than the £100,000 proposed in the final manifesto that caused such a storm.)

But the leak is also useful in that it makes it clear the kind of future capitalism has in store for us if it is not overthrown. Whilst May exhibited spectacularly bad timing in setting out her election stall, the dark future of strike bans and welfare cuts of which she dreams is in fact a reality in which all will share, whatever capitalist party or parties enter government. (See Theresa May secretly planned to outlaw strikes by teachers and nurses by Simon Walters, Mail on Sunday, 22 October 2017)

Cote d’Ivoire

A glance at current developments in the West African state of Cote d’Ivoire will serve to remind us of the raw class-against-class essence of ‘industrial relations’ when the gloves come off.

The PCRCI (Revolutionary Communist Party of Cote d’Ivoire) reports that the comprador government of President Alassane Ouattara is responding to popular unrest with the most brutal repression. The most recent victims of this are customs officers engaging in a peaceful strike over backpay, increased workload and other issues.

When their union called them out on strike on 17 and 18 October this year, the government responded by mobilising hundreds of police to do battle with the customs officers. Because the government panicked and dealt with a common strike as if it were an insurrection, many serious injuries and arrests ensued.

This draconian action comes after earlier arrests and beatings suffered by students fighting against corruption in the educational sector and peasants protesting over the slump in cocoa prices. (See Déclaration relative à la répression sauvage du pouvoir Ouattara sur les douaniers de Côte d’Ivoire en grève pour de meilleures conditions de vie, report by Achy Ekissi, Secretary General of the PCRCI, 19 October 2017)

Behind Ouattara’s comprador regime lies the not-so-hidden hand of French and US imperialism, whose companies dominate the ‘liberalised’ Ivorian economy.

Aslef’s ‘shabby deal’

Workers in the rail industry have long been weakened by the fact that they are organised into three different unions, depending on whether they are drivers (mostly Aslef), guards (RMT) or clerical workers (mostly TSSA).

The RMT has made efforts to recruit across the industry, with a handful of drivers and clerical workers becoming members, and on some issues (like the campaign to renationalise the railways) there has been some collaboration between the different unions.

For the last year and a half there has been an uneasy alliance between RMT and Aslef over the issue of attempts by a number of train operating companies to extend driver only operation (DOO).

Management efforts to strip on-train guards of their safety responsibilities as a prelude to getting rid of the guard altogether and running trains just with drivers have been met with long-running strike action from both RMT and ASLF. Where the unions have struck in tandem the impact has been enormous, especially on Southern Rail.

However, early in November the news broke that Aslef had concluded a separate peace with Southern Rail, breaking ranks with the RMT in what general secretary Mick Cash denounced as a “shabby deal”.

Aslef claimed to have extracted a promise that only in “exceptional circumstances” would trains be sent out without a second, safety-trained person on board. This ‘promise’, even if adhered to, is sufficiently vague (Who determines what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’? And what counts as safety training?) to let management get away with murder.

The government has clearly been encouraging Southern Rail and other rail companies to hang tough on this issue with the intention of extending DOO throughout the industry and facing down the militant resistance of the RMT. Whatever promises Aslef believes it has been given, government sources are already crowing that the Aslef deal gives the go-ahead for DOO across the industry.

This triumph of the craft-union spirit over industrial solidarity comes at a price for Southern Rail, which is committed to paying a thousand drivers a 28.5 percent pay rise over five years. But this will be understood as a price worth paying if it can sow disunity amongst rail workers and weaken their collective resistance to the development of a privatised rail industry that routinely cuts corners on safety in order to protect the profit margins of shareholders. (Train drivers agree 28 percent pay rise to end Southern Rail strikes by Graeme Paton, The Times, 9 November 2017)

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