Ellesmere Port: Success or sacrifice?

UNITE Convenors at Ellesmere Port Vauxhall Plant 18 May 2012 The Ellesmere Port deal has saved thousands of jobs and created thousands more, but it came at a cost.

Commentary icon18 May 2012|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

UNITE Convenors at Ellesmere Port Vauxhall Plant

18 May 2012

The Ellesmere Port deal has saved thousands of jobs and created thousands more, but it came at a cost.

The deal struck by workers and their employer at the General Motors plant in Ellesmere Port this week has been welcomed as a triumph of UK industry both by unions and the government. Indeed, the preservation of thousands of jobs and the promised creation of thousands more is without doubt a cause for celebration – but let’s not forget that continued employment at the site may have come at a cost to GM workers, and potentially to the broader employment rights landscape both here and abroad.

Worker ‘flexibility’

As many as 94% of Unite the Union members agreed to compromise on pay and conditions for two years as part of a four year deal to keep the factory in operation. The willingness of workers to accept such a deal is understandable, given that they were at serious risk of losing their jobs completely under plans by GM to shut the plant down.

However, this deal also exposes the fact that the onus for keeping Britain competitive in the global market – an aim often proudly held aloft by the coalition – is falling on workers rather than wealthy multinationals like GM.

The same people struggling against rising energy prices, soaring rents and frozen wages are being asked to make even more sacrifices. This is what the government calls being ‘flexible’. Indeed, politicians including David Cameron and Business Secretary Vince Cable have praised the Ellesmere Port deal, extolling the virtues of “worker flexibility” at a company that last year reported record annual profits. It would be nice if Cameron and Cable could also encourage “company flexibility” by asking GM to make sacrifices by subsidising its European division (the Opel/Vauxhall sites) which reported record losses for 2011.

A stick with which to beat the public sector

One immediate problem stemming from the deal has been its use by politicians to threaten public sector workers, who are fighting spending cuts that will see them working longer and for lower pay. The “flexibility” of the Ellesmere Port workers – who were simply backed into a corner – is being used against unions trying to protect the rights of state employees.

Workers are being played against each other, asked to lower their expectations to ‘be competitive’ and forced to shoulder the nation’s debt. Meanwhile, businesses are being given increased powers to rid themselves of “burdensome” safety protocol and staff, with a consultation currently investigating the possibility of allowing microbusinesses to dismiss workers without good reason and remove the right of their employees to take them to an employment tribunal for doing so.

The government has proudly boasted that the UK won this battle against competition in Europe. This puts European leaders in a position to ask more of their people. Next time, Britain’s global competitors – many of which offer their population much lower living costs – may provide businesses with a better deal. Will UK workers be asked to sacrifice more of their time, money and rights to ‘be competitive’ in this environment?

The UK should be proud to be progressive when it comes to employment rights and strive to improve the lives of its population, not race other nations to the bottom at the beck and call of the world’s largest companies.

UNITE members are proud of the deal negotiated under difficult circumstances at Ellesmere Port and rightly so. John Cooper, Deputy Convenor at the Plant, highlighted just some of the negotiated terms including:

  • Guaranteed jobs up to 2020 and beyond
  • Use of UK part content more than doubled
  • Full plant utilisation and increased shift premiums
  • Increased employment of local young people, with a 100% increase in apprenticeship numbers
  • John Cooper said: The security and stability negotiated by UNITE at the plant are also underpinned by a legally binding agreement – the first in UK manufacturing. Failure by the company to abide by the terms of the agreement will come at a massive cost to GM.

    Sarah Glenister

    Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.