A brewing international trade dispute is threatening thousands of jobs in Northern Ireland. One thousand workers at Canadian aerospace company Bombardier’s Belfast plant are engaged in building wings for its new C-series passenger jet.
Last year, Bombardier secured a major order for the planes from US airline Delta but that has now been put in jeopardy by a complaint from American aerospace giant Boeing to the US Department of Commerce.
Boeing alleges that Bombardier received ‘unfair’ subsidies and financial assistance in developing the C-series from both the government in Quebec and Invest Northern Ireland, who supplied £130 million to back the project.
In reality, this is standard practise in the aerospace industry and Boeing itself has been the recipient of huge handouts and favourable loans from the US government.
In many hi-tech industries, research and development is heavily reliant upon public sector support. The massive profits, of course, remain private.
In its initial ruling, the US Department of Commerce has found in Boeing’s favour and proposed tariffs on the import of the Bombardier C-series which would triple the plane’s cost.
This is reflective of the more aggressively protectionist ‘America First’ policy of the Trump administration, aiming to defend the interests of US capitalists from foreign competition while still attacking the living standards of American workers.
If these tariffs are ratified in February, it could scupper the Delta deal and threaten the future of the C-series and the thousands of workers employed in building it.
Largest manufacturing employer
Bombardier is the largest manufacturer in Northern Ireland, employing over 4,000 workers and with thousands more jobs directly reliant upon it.
In the context of a weak, low-wage economy with mounting poverty and high youth unemployment, significant losses of skilled and relatively well-paid jobs at the plant would be a major blow, not just to the workers and their families, but to future generations. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Unite and the GMB – the trade unions which represent Bombardier staff – have called on politicians locally and at Westminster to put pressure on Boeing to withdraw its complaint, a call echoed by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
Perhaps reflecting its reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Tory government has indicated that Boeing’s contracts with the British military could be reviewed in response to its complaint and the threatened tariffs.
The role of the trade union and labour movement isn’t to take a side in a spat between two sets of profit-hungry capitalists but to fight to ensure that jobs and pay are defended.
Instead of accepting the diktats of the so-called free market, which mean an endless race to the bottom, the labour movement must demand that manufacturing firms which threaten to throw workers on the dole are brought into public ownership, with investment in retooling and retraining where necessary.
The mass support for Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to renationalise Royal Mail, public transport and other industries shows that working class people increasingly see public ownership is a viable alternative which can serve the interests of the 99%.
This demand would be especially understood given the significant public investment in developing the technology behind the C-series and supporting jobs and skills at Bombardier.
To refuse to fight for nationalisation is to accept a continuous erosion of jobs and conditions in manufacturing.