The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged sectors across the British economy, with not a single industry spared. Manufacturing took a massive hit, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost since March and many more still at risk, hanging by a thread.
Unite has led the charge in defending UK manufacturing because these jobs – many of them unionised, highly skilled and decently paid – are absolutely vital for the survival of our communities, and will be a key part of any successful post-pandemic recovery.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner explained why manufacturing matters, especially in this moment of crisis.
“Take the current example of Barnoldswick, home to 11,000 people,” he noted. “The jobs at the Rolls-Royce factory directly sustain 1,000 families and up to four times as many families in the supply chain and supporting industries. Together they contribute £1.1bn to the regional GDP.
“Examples such as this show that these are not isolated islands of decent, unionised work, but that their importance comes from the broader networks they sustain. When you let one fall, the rest follow like dominos.”
Unite launched its Manufacturing Matters campaign last year in the context of Brexit, and this year the campaign has taken on a new sense of urgency in these unprecedented times.
Central to the campaign is an industrial strategy for manufacturing that Unite is pressing the government to adopt. Key recommendations include strategic state investment to support the country’s manufacturing base, spending the multi-billion pound public procurement budget in this country and bringing back offshored work.
Unite is also calling on the government to invest in the UK’s creaking infrastructure, and to tackle the climate emergency with a green industrial revolution, which will create hundreds of thousands of new, highly skilled jobs of the future.
In the short-term, protecting manufacturing in crisis means taking immediate action to protect jobs – this was the driving force behind Unite’s SOS for Jobs campaign, where Unite called for an extension of the furlough scheme and for the government to provide long-term support for Britain’s manufacturing base in the same way many other European countries have done.
Unite’s manufacturing members from a range of industries – from automotive to aerospace to steel and more – descended on Parliament for a rally in September, demanding that the government extend the furlough scheme and also introduce a short-time working scheme.
A short-time working scheme has been a central part of Unite’s economic recovery plan to save jobs – a similar scheme already operating in Germany has met with huge success. In the UK, too, Unite has negotiated short-time working with individual firms and saved many jobs in the process.
Workers at BTW Senior Aerospace, for example, banded together to save jobs after Unite struck a short-time working deal with the company in September.
The agreement saved more than 40 jobs and serves as a model for how the government can save a substantial number of jobs if it helps companies with short-time working schemes.
Unite regional officer Alan Small said the agreement “demonstrates that members and employers are prepared to play their part in preserving employment during the pandemic; it is time the government also steps up to the plate”.
Indeed, stepping up to the plate is what Unite continues to press the government to do. The union is now spreading its Manufacturing Matters strategy far and wide in a series of regional meetings, led by Unite’s Steve Turner.
Central to the union’s strategy is calling for more of the country’s annual £292bn public procurement to be allocated to UK manufacturers. At present, far too much government work is outsourced to firms abroad.
Unite secured a victory on this front after the government agreed that Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships should be built in the UK.
In a long-running campaign, both Unite and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU), of which Unite is a part, have called for the three FSS ships, which will help keep the Navy’s new aircraft carriers at sea and provide them with munitions and food, to be built in the UK to support thousands of local jobs and economies and keep the UK’s shipbuilding tradition alive.
After pressure from Unite and the CSEU, the government made a major U-turn in September, reclassifying Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships as warships – and so must be built in the UK.
Now, Unite will be holding the government’s feet to the fire to ensure the £1.5bn FSS contract benefits UK manufacturing.
“The building of the three ships in the UK must mean that the design, build and maintenance are undertaken in the UK,” said Unite national officer Rhys McCarthy. “The bid should be awarded to a UK shipbuilding consortium, block built across all UK shipyards, built with British steel and cabling. Doing so makes sound industrial and economic sense and would safeguard thousands of jobs, our shipyards, our manufacturing and support our local and national economies.”
While Unite works tirelessly to defend British manufacturing, Unite’s manufacturing members themselves have stepped up to help others amid the pandemic. In May, for example, a number of Nissan workers volunteered to help make PPE after the auto firm repurposed plants to produce protective kit during the first lockdown.
“Nissan was one of the first major companies to answer the call made by Unite and our sister unions to create a manufacturing army to end shortages of masks, aprons and other life-saving equipment,” Turner said.
“The company’s efforts in repurposing parts of their manufacturing capabilities have been matched by our members’ determination to produce vital PPE for frontline workers battling this terrible virus.
“It shows that whether in this case or in fighting for jobs, Unite Manufacturing, by working together, are delivering outstanding and life-saving results.”
By Hajera Blagg
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list