The UK government must act fast to save thousands of jobs in Northern Ireland now at risk after the US Department of Commerce ruled this week (September 27) to slap a massive 220 per cent tariff on imported Bombardier planes.
The US based aerospace company Boeing, which is a competitor of Bombardier, put in a complaint to the US Commerce Department in April over what it argued was ‘unfair competition’ because Bombardier had received investment from the Canadian and Invest NI.
This investment, Boeing says, enabled Bombardier to sell its CSeries single aisle passenger jets to Delta airlines at cheaper rates.
The resulting tariff, if confirmed, could threaten the future of Bombardier’s CSeries aircraft, whose wings are manufactured at a site in Belfast, where over 4,000 people are employed, with many thousands more in the supply chain.
Unite has argued that this was a cynical bid by Boeing to crush perfectly legitimate competition. After all, Boeing was not materially harmed by the Delta order – it did not even put in a bid for the contract. Its claims are also hypocritical – Boeing itself has received billions in subsidies from the US government.
After pressure from Unite, as well as the Labour Party and the DUP, the UK government belatedly “warned” Boeing, with defence secretary Michael Fallon saying “this kind of behaviour clearly could jeopardise our future relationship with Boeing.”
Standing on the side lines
Prime minister Theresa May is understood to have endorsed Fallon’s comments, but publicly she has only said that she was “bitterly disappointed” in the Department of Commerce decision and of Boeing, she said, “This is not the sort of behaviour we expect from a long-term partner. It undermines that partnership.”
Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke criticised May’s standing on the side lines.
“The prime minister has said she was ‘bitterly disappointed’ but we at Unite are ‘totally outraged,’ he said, explaining just how vital Bombardier is to the wider Northern Ireland economy – the company is the largest private sector employer in Northern Ireland.
He highlighted that Boeing has been emboldened by Donald Trump’s nationalistic, ‘America First’ rhetoric, and has taken advantage of the political climate in America try to crush a competitor, in effect stifling innovation and competitiveness.
But May has a trump card of her own – and Unite is piling on the pressure for her to use it.
“The UK government is not without leverage,” Tony Burke said, pointing to figures which show that UK defence spending with Boeing runs into the billions.
A deal for 9 P-8 Poseidon marine surveillance planes is valued at £2.6bn, while an order for 50 Apache helicopters is worth £1.73bn and an upgrade of Chinook helicopters is valued at £150m. In total, the UK government has committed to spending about £5bn in Boeing defence equipment.
“Prime minister Theresa May has talked tough on Boeing, but now needs to personally intervene and the Canadian Government with the company and use this massive spend to make sure fair trade prevails,” he said.
“The prime minister cannot be a bystander in all of this and needs to pull every lever to ensure Bombardier jobs are protected from the corporate bullying behaviour of Boeing,” Burke added.
He went on to say that May can also pressure the US government and “ask why its department for commerce has decided to impose massive tariffs without allowing Bombardier the chance to put its case.”
“Time is not on our side,” he added. “With a World Trade Organisation reference taking up to three years, prime minister Theresa May must act fast, targeting the US government, to preserve the thousands of jobs that depend on Bombardier’s Belfast operation.”
The trade dispute also threatens to darken the prospect of a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal.
“Trump has thrown May under the bus with this decision. The promise of Trump’s ‘big beautiful trade agreement’ with the UK is effectively dead – it should give us pause over what the UK’s position in any future trade deal with the US would be,” Burke argued. “So much for Liam Fox’s flying visits to the US to try to kick start trade discussions!”
He also said Boeing’s “corporate bullying” supported by the Trump administration demonstrates the need for a proper procurement and industrial strategy for UK defence – a point Unite has long made through its ‘Defend Our Spend’ campaign.
Defence analyst Francis Tusa has estimated that the current Tory government will double the amount of defence pounds spent in the USA by 2020 from around 12 per cent today to possibly 25 per cent.
Burke slammed the way that the government has approached defence procurement.
“Tory defence ministers have boasted about how the UK has ‘the most open defence market in the world’ and how the government ‘buys off the shelf as much as possible’ – these are euphemisms for building our nation’s defence totally reliant on foreign products, especially from the US, in effect leaving UK defence manufacturers behind. It’s bad for workers, bad for our economy and bad for our sovereign capability.”
No stone unturned
Unite will not rest until the future of Bombardier workers and the thousands whose livelihood depends on the company’s wider supply chain is secured.
“We are leaving no stone unturned – we are lobbying Mrs. May and Government ministers, and our Irish Regional Officers are working hard to get all Northern Ireland politicians on board in a co-ordinated campaign.
“We are working with our sister unions in the USA and Canada. We have the full backing of the Labour Party to pressure both the US and Canadian governments along with Boeing and Bombardier to get this sorted out. We are determined to stand up for every single one of our members’ jobs and the wider community reliant on these highly skilled jobs.”
Find out more about Unite’s Defend our Spend campaign here.