Oppose Trident, resist partnership, campaign for sustainable jobs

Ian Allinson, the only candidate for Unite General Secretary to oppose Trident, argues that the union’s support for weapons of mass destruction is part of a wider partnership agenda which hinders effective campaigning for sustainable jobs, including the million climate jobs campaign.

Trident missile launching

Opposition to Trident and its renewal was growing even before the latest debacle where the government appears to have tried to cover up a failed test launch before a crucial vote in the House of Commons.

In Scotland, elections returned anti-Trident SNP MP’s and MSP’s across the country, including in constituencies where its supporters claim that cancellation of Trident would have a devastating impact on jobs. The Scottish Labour Party voted overwhelmingly to oppose Trident renewal, but this was too late to stop their electoral wipe-out. Nearly every national trade union is now opposed to Trident renewal. The STUC and TUC have both adopted anti-Trident positions.

There are widely differing estimates of what the Trident weapons system may cost. This is because the government refuses to answer questions on the grounds that it is classified. According to Tory MP Crispin Blunt “the successor Trident programme is going to consume more than double the proportion of the defence budget of its predecessor“. Blunt says, “the price required, both from the UK taxpayer and our conventional forces, is now too high to be rational or sensible“. In its strategic defence review at the end of last year the government announced an increase in costs from £25bn to £31bn with an additional £10bn for overspends for the construction of the submarines alone. CND claim that the lifetime cost of Trident will be at least £205bn when overspends and decommissioning are factored in.

Whatever the truth about the cost of Trident and its successor, most people could think of higher priorities than costly weapons of mass destruction which are useless at best, and at worst threaten to incinerate millions of people who are no different to members and our families.

Despite growing opposition and growing costs, Len McCluskey has said:

“Everyone would love the whole world to get rid of nuclear weapons – we understand the moral arguments and cost arguments in these days of austerity. However, the most important thing for us is to protect jobs. In the absence of any credible alternative to protect jobs and high skills we will vote against any anti-Trident resolution.”

With the bulk of the labour movement opposing Trident renewal, leading Tories admitting that Trident is too expensive and many military thinkers concluding that Trident is expensive, obsolete and militarily useless, we need a rethink in Unite. The main thing standing in the way of this is an argument about jobs.

So is Trident good for jobs?

Even many within the defence industries are questioning this.

Before the Scottish independence referendum, shipbuilders on the Clyde were promised a ‘Frigate factory’ to build over 35 ships with a huge export potential. The quid pro quo was that they campaigned and voted against independence. Within months of voting to stay in the UK, the workforce were told that budget cut backs meant the number of frigates was being drastically reduced and the ‘Frigate Factory’ disappeared alongside the threat of Scottish independence. These cuts are directly related to the spiralling costs of Trident. Last year, BAE Systems announced the halting of the production on Type 26 Frigates.

According to estimates the independent Royal United Services Institute made in late 2013, Trident will absorb 35% of the military budget, and capital spending on Trident will be more than double the Royal Navy’s surface fleet budget by the early 2020’s. Secret spending commitments made for Trident are already damaging job prospects across defence related work. The myth that Trident protects jobs is increasingly being exposed as costs spiral out of control. The fact that BAE Systems didn’t implement threatened redundancies last year was thanks to members’ commitment to take industrial action to defend jobs. However, the problem about funding and jobs remains – and Trident is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Other military experts see Trident and its successor as soaking up money that would be better spent on surveillance, cyber-security and conventional weapons.

The Scottish government believes that defence diversification could play an important role in Scotland’s future industrial strategy. They have pledged to work with the STUC and CND to explore the potential for Scotland’s defence industry to diversify into other activities such as that offered by energy, particularly marine renewables.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to develop plans for converting the skills of those involved in maintaining nuclear weapons into highly skilled and well paid jobs in conventional defence or the civil sector to ensure that no jobs are lost with the cancellation of Trident. Unite’s policy commits it to diversification, yet nothing has been done to build pressure on the Scottish or UK governments to invest in alternatives. The problem is that many of those in the union who back Trident believe nuclear weapons are good for jobs and communities and see no alternative.

Partnership and fight back union?

Employers who have a profitable business rarely want to change tack – they take a short-term view even if that risks the long term future of the business and their workforce. Diversification isn’t only an issue affecting Trident or defence – many of us work in jobs that are unlikely to be secure in the face of climate change, automation/robotics, digitalisation or political change. We need to defend jobs, but that won’t always be done most effectively by tying ourselves to our employer’s current business plan. Often we will need to be pushing them to diversify before crisis hits us.

Neither employers nor the UK government have shown enthusiasm for defence diversification. The Unite leadership has behaved as if we have to convince employers and government that our ideas offer a better way forward for them. If we relied on convincing our bosses that change was in their own interests we would still be sending kids up chimneys. This ‘partnership’ approach, that members’ interests are the same as our employers and government, that “we are all in it together”, has rarely been the basis of effective trade unionism. Working class people have always had to fight for everything.

Partnership puts a corrupting pressure on union reps who want to achieve the best for members. In the case of Trident, accepting the employers’ agenda means believing that Trident is a strategic asset and vital for jobs. Reps end up defending nuclear weapons at any cost. As costs spiral and budgets are cut the union is left defending a project that undermines jobs and communities. Unite’s failure to challenge partnership with employers has a pernicious impact across the union as Trident related jobs are ‘protected’ in a way no others are. Shipbuilders on the Clyde know only too well how jobs can be sacrificed to keep funding the Trident money pit.

Successfully challenging the corporate agenda of super profits and weapons of mass destruction will mean breaking with the idea that what’s good for the boss is good for our members. Employers and government will never sacrifice the super profits associated with arms production unless they are forced to. Partnership is a barrier to developing both independent workplace organisation and a vision for a better future. It’s time the leadership of the union supported those arguing to make diversification a practical reality, to secure a future beyond nuclear weapons and reliance on defence contracts. If we want to stop the decline in manufacturing we need a plan that starts with what is actually in the interests of members and society.

It’s simply not true that supporting an employer’s business equates to defending the jobs there. When a local tobacco factory was threatened with closure, I was campaigning to defend the jobs, even though it’s not an industry many of us want to see thriving. One of the representatives there called security to have me thrown off the car park. That rep got a job as a consultant for the tobacco industry, but the factory closed and members lost their jobs. This is a fine example of where the logic of partnership takes us.

Time to change course

Unite’s support for Trident undermines job security across the Aerospace and Shipbuilding sector and beyond.

We finally have opportunities with the Scottish government and Labour Party making commitments to support defence diversification and develop credible alternatives. The vote to strike to defend jobs on the Clyde shows how we stop job cuts. However, effectively using our industrial muscle to defend jobs will mean breaking from the idea that what’s good for the boss is good for our members. Industrial action tied to a vision for socially and environmentally sustainable jobs can create huge political pressure to force the government to positively intervene.

Surely, it’s time for Unite to join the wider labour movement and convince the workers whose jobs currently depend on Trident to actively pursue diversification away from weapons of mass destruction and towards using technologies that can provide real benefits to members and our communities, as well as better guarantees of job security?

If elected as General Secretary, I will call a conference of defence workers, the defence teams from Labour and the SNP, and experts on diversification. This can begin the process of developing a diversification strategy based on the needs of members and our communities – regardless of what the defence employers currently want.