This introduction is being written on the day the British Government ends its support for the “furlough” scheme to pay 80% of workers’ wages so they would not be sacked during the pandemic. At least 1 million workers now face an uncertain future. The Italian government began unravelling its support for jobs on 1 July when it ended the moratorium on lay-offs. It was the signal the finance capitalist organisation, Melrose, had been waiting for.
Melrose is a hedge fund, a modern example of the “parasitic finance capital” Lenin identified in his Imperialism. It produces nothing, but specialises in taking over firms where it can see the opportunities to “buy, improve, sell” -– in other words, asset strip a business and sack at least part of the workforce to boost its “bottom line”. In March 2018, after a protracted bitter battle, they bought the firm now known as GKN for £8.1 billion. This was a big enough bribe to convince 52% of the shareholders (who saw their shares rise 40% in 2 months) to vote for the takeover.(1)
They had done the same to other firms, but GKN is one of the biggest names in British engineering. Based on the original 1759 foundation of Dowlais Ironworks by Thomas Guest it followed the usual capitalist path of amalgamation to become Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds (hence GKN) by the Second World War when it supplied Spitfires and steel helmets to the British state. Today, based in Redditch, it has aerospace and automotive divisions employing 27,500 workers in 51 plants across 30 countries. It has markets the world over supplying both Boeing and Airbus, and many leading carmakers. Given its national significance it caused outrage even on the capitalist right. One Tory MP described Melrose(2) as “robber baron capitalism at its worst – many British jobs being destroyed by the few, corporate vultures plundering a company for short-term profits but long-term disaster”.(3) But they are not alone. Driven by “leverage” (debt) getting an immediate financial return is what modern capitalism is all about. And the more they borrow the more jobs they have to cut in any restructuring in order to make that fast buck.
The pandemic rather scuppered Melrose plans for a while, but they gave a sign of things to come when they sacked 185 workers out of over 600 at their Birmingham automotive plant in March 2020, rather than have to pay 20% of their wages under the furlough scheme. Their next decisive move came only a week after the Italian government removed the ban on sackings in larger factories.(4) Melrose announced the closure of the Campi Bisenzio GKN plant in Florence, informing the 422 workers that they were to be sacked by email. The workers who mostly belong to FIOM (the metal working arm of the biggest union confederation, the CGIL) set up their own semi-independent strike committee and decided to occupy the plant to prevent the removal of the machinery. A permanent picket was mounted at the gates. They have sought solidarity from other workers, and the leaflet translated below was given out at several of the demonstrations in their support in Florence. The struggle goes on to this day, partly because Melrose has not followed the letter of Italian law, so the workers are getting a space in which to organise.
Meanwhile Melrose has since announced the same fate is to befall the remaining workers at their Birmingham plant next year. The workers thus voted overwhelmingly to strike, which scared the company into agreeing to halt the closure, and not remove machinery. The strike was thus suspended by the main union Unite whilst negotiation with “key stakeholders” take place “to keep the factory open and ensure it plays a key role in the UK car industries’ transition to electric vehicles”.(5) It remains to be seen just how this will pan out but Melrose could still make money by flogging the drive shaft factory off to some new “green” company (no doubt subsidised by the state) to make electric vehicles. Whatever happens, jobs will go.
Back in Italy, the GKN strike is notable in that until very recently most of the struggles in Italy(6) have been undertaken by migrant workers working in logistics. We have reported on these several times in the last decade or so.(7) As in the UK, migrant workers are largely ignored by the traditional unions, so a space has opened up for so-called rank and file, or base, unions to operate. At first they appear to be more active and less bureaucratic than traditional unions but gradually, the very fact that they exist only to negotiate over working conditions, soon sees them start to morph in the same direction as the old unions. Worse too they don’t unite the workers but divide them.(8) In Italy there are now something like 20 of them.
Faced with the end to the blocking of lay-offs at the end of this month about a dozen of them(9) have decided, for the first time, to call a joint “general strike” – for one day on Monday, 11 October. The aims are wide ranging. They are calling for a continuation of the ban on making redundancies, a reduction of working hours on the same wages, index-linking of wages, guaranteed income for the unemployed based on the average wage, and end to precarious jobs and the Jobs Act,(10) more investment in education, health and transport, and an end to privatisation. They go on to add demands for “the equality of rights and services throughout the national territory”; real trade union democracy “to give workers the power to decide who should represent them”; as well as better regulation of health and safety at work. For the protection of immigrant workers (and the right to remain): a continuation of the ban on evictions, and “a new structural plan for public housing”, equal pay for women and protection of the environment. All very good as a litany of the evils of capitalism but don’t look for that word in the whole document.(11) A one day general strike is also hardly the storming of the Winter Palace but the organisers hope it will be a way to build up support for protests against the G20 which meets in Rome later this month.
Begging capitalism to be nicer with the usual social democratic wish list is what unions in the richest capitalist countries have peddled for at least a century with little success. It is further confirmation that any anti-capitalist rhetoric that these radical-reformists occasionally employ is simply that. It also confirms what the leaflet below states. Without the insertion of a real critique of the system which spawns all the evils listed in the quoted document and without the posing of a real political and social alternative, we are destined to go around and around in the same descending spiral of misery. As the pandemic comes under some sort of control, the fight is already on to make the working class pay for the enormous debt that the system had to run up to survive. After decades of declining wages, and working class recomposition, we have reached a critical point in history, in which a further retreat of the class will not only exacerbate the evils listed above, but given the climate crisis and the increased drive towards imperialist confrontation, can only bring humanity’s survival into question. And it will be the one international class united everywhere by its condition of exploitation that holds the key to the future – but only if it destroys the current social model that has brought us to this point.
1 October 2021
The first fruits of the end to the moratorium on sackings are already clearly here.
Far from the “common advice”, heralded by the union confederations as a victory, by acting as a brake on the overwhelming power of the bosses: the number of brutal lay-offs is multiplying. This is happening the length and breadth of Italy, in companies where the workers have not and never had stopped working, including night shifts and overtime, despite the pandemic. Now, overnight, parts of that working class are being sacked because the bosses – it’s the old story – find it more convenient to move production to places where exploitation and the dictatorship of the bosses have even fewer restraints than here, and where wages are a lot lower. The predatory character of capitalism – of which the owner of the GKN, the speculative hedge fund Melrose, is a prime example – was accentuated by the pandemic, which has only added to the long crisis in which world capitalism has been entangled for decades.
It is not enough for the bosses that they got the lion’s share of government “support” during the pandemic – workers only got about one third of the total – their aim is now to make the process of extortion of surplus value, that is, of exploitation, even more efficient, in order to bring about the much hoped for recovery. If that means throwing thousands of workers into the streets, the capitalists don’t care, because that’s what the logic of capital dictates.
Once again it is obvious that the interests of capital and those of the working class are irreconcilable: whoever says otherwise is either lying or deluding themselves. To impose their own interests, not only do bosses have the law on their side, but more and more often they hire gangs of professional thugs (their “bouncers”) to intimidate and beat up the workers in struggle: at GKN, in the logistics sector, etc.
The first workers’ reaction to the bosses’ attack, to the layoffs of recent weeks was timely and determined, even if not always as massive as needed.
In this regard, the position the GKN workers posted on the web has been well calibrated: they do not beg for charity, but for solidarity in the fight against lay-offs, as is logical. This is necessary, but not sufficient, because we are still within the orbit of a demand struggle, from which a glimmer of anti-capitalist consciousness is not emerging, nor any hint that class struggle cannot remain within the usual capitalist framework. Of course, it would be naive to claim that these struggles could, autonomously and spontaneously, arrive at a political level, even more so when they are led by a reformist political-trade union class, which never dreams of questioning the capitalist system. Even when the system is in deep crisis, they delude themselves and others that they can extract massive improvements in wages or working conditions. Instead, especially in this epoch, the bourgeoisie – either directly in the workplace or in society through its institutions – takes, does not give, while the margins for demands are becoming increasingly narrow. The central problem is the new phase in which capital is entering: to lay off workers and then, eventually, to bring them back, obviously on worse conditions. The class is meeting this appointment in a weak and fragmented condition. It has been “accustomed” for too long to swallowing worse contracts and other setbacks signed by union confederations who are always ready, in the final analysis, to submit the interests of the working class to those of the national economy, that is, of the bosses. This is also why it is hard to get concrete solidarity, rather than just fighting to save their jobs only in their own workplaces. It would be an important first step towards the revival of an anti-capitalist discourse.
Does this mean that it makes no sense to fight against layoffs, against job insecurity, against the theft of indirect and deferred wages (the welfare state), for the defence of the purchasing power of wages and salaries? NO, on the contrary!
It shows only one thing: either in these struggles there is the presence of revolutionaries, who put the perspective of overcoming this society based on exploitation and depredation (not least of the ecosystem), or everything is destined to be reabsorbed, both in victory when they are won, at the cost of increasingly hard battles, and in defeat. We therefore insist on this: it is time for the strengthening of the revolutionary party, otherwise any struggle, even the most generous and combative, will end up being reabsorbed within the same old capitalist framework, leaving behind only despair, disappointment and an even more arrogant and predatory class enemy!
Solidarity with GKN Workers and All Under the Same Attacks of the Bosses!
24 July 2021
Photo from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOpmthutBbc
(2) Melrose employs 12,000 people but is run for the benefit of just 4 men who each awarded themselves £40 million in bonuses last year.
(3) Robert Halfon MP quoted in https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/mar/29/whats-the-controversy-o…
(4) For smaller firms (the majority) the moratorium remains in place until 31 October.
(6) Ex-Alitalia workers facing redundancy as the new airline ITA will only take on about one third of them have recently clashed with the police at Fiumicino, Rome. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hundreds-strikers-block-road-rome-a…
(7) See (amongst many others) https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2017-03-21/two-comments-on-recent-ev…, https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-03-16/italy-the-capitalist-atta…, https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2020-03-11/demonstration-and-strike-…
(8) In the UK union splits between the IWGB and the new ADCU meant that separate Uber strikes were planned on 28 September and 6 October. https://libcom.org/news/uber-drivers-strike-september-28th-october-6th-2…
(9) They are: Adl Cobas, Cib Unicobas, Clap, Confederazione Cobas, Cobas scuola, Cub, Fuori mercato, Sgb, Si Cobas, Sial Cobas, Slai Cobas, Usb e Usi Cit.
(10) For the Jobs Act see https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2016-11-11/italy-we-fight-against-th…
(11) The summary translated here is from the website of the Confederazione Unitaria di Base (CUB) https://www.cub.it/index.php/157-attivita/scioperi-generali/14725-sciope…