The closure announced today of the Electrolux cooker factory in County Durham with the loss of 500 jobs is an opportunity for the trade unions to reject the profit and loss approach of the global corporations and mount a worldwide campaign against the decision. The early signs are not hopeful.
Electrolux’s decision is the worst kind of Christmas news for the workforce in an area of permanently high unemployment. Just as bad is the initial reaction of the workers’ union, Unite. Speaking after the announcement, Jeff Morland, North East divisional officer for the union, said: "I'm standing in the canteen with a lot of our members and obviously there is a lot of disappointment, fear and some anger. It could not have happened at a worse time and I think there will be the ghost of a few Christmases past rattling around here over the weekend. There is a lot to take in for families and this is the worst possible Christmas present."
These less-than-inspiring words were a reaction to the news that the plant in Spennymoor will close next year, with some production moving to Poland, where labour is cheaper. Morland’s pessimistic words are typical of a union leadership whose own jobs are safe following the merger of the engineers and transport workers to create Unite. The merger was driven by statements that it would create a stronger base to oppose closures like the one Electrolux has announced. Well, here’s their chance.
Electrolux had sales of almost £8 billion last year and a workforce of 57,000. The company has 22 factories in Europe and is the world's second largest appliance manufacturer. In other words, there is a powerful network of factories and workers that Unite could turn to. The union could mount a campaign against the closure throughout Europe to begin with.
Electrolux says it is moving production to “improve competitiveness”. This is the heart of the matter and the union has to reject this profit-driven approach if it is serious about fighting the corporations. Instead of calling on the New Labour government “to do more to protect British manufacturing” – as Morland did today – Unite should make the case of running production on a not-for-profit, co-operative basis. Giving money to the corporations simply doesn’t work, in any case. In 2005, regional development agency One NorthEast agreed to plough £1.6m into the plant, in an effort to retain manufacturing jobs in County Durham.
In the coming months, corporations in every country will come under pressure to cut workforces as the economic recession bites. If Unite takes up the challenge to resist the Electrolux closure, it would inspire workers in every Electrolux plant whose owns are on the line. The first step would be to prevent the closure in Spennymoor with an occupation of the plant, supported by the local community, and to launch an appeal to Polish workers to reject the switch in production. That’s the kind of Christmas message the unions should be sending to Electrolux.