Introducing the debate on pensions at Unite’s Fourth Irish Policy Conference in Belfast, Deputy Regional Secretary Jackie Pollock said:
I would like to open this debate focussing on the strengths of Northern Ireland industry. All too often we are forced to focus on the bad news – but it is important that we start off from a positive perspective. It is precisely because we have such a strong industrial base that we need to have real ambition for this sector.
Manufacturing in Northern Ireland makes a vital contribution to our economy. 85,000 are directly employed in the sector with hundreds of thousands more jobs in distribution and service sectors dependent indirectly and through induced spending.
The sector has the highest productivity in the Northern Ireland economy and contributes £14 billion in exports every year.
In some local authority areas, a quarter of the workforce is employed in industry. Alongside Agriculture, manufacturing underpins the regional economy.
Northern Ireland industry has world leaders in aeronautics, in space manufacturing, in precision engineering and in pharmaceuticals. Northern Ireland has a powerful industrial base and a legacy of being a world leader in manufacturing.
While we have a strong base, there is no escaping the fact that this legacy, this base, is under threat and much more importantly to us, as a result – the pay, livelihoods and futures of our members and our future members are under threat.
So it is vital for our future prosperity that we adopt an active industrial policy with an ambitious vision for where we want to go; a strategic approach to growing manufacturing.
Taken against this backdrop it is all the more shameful that the politicians on the hill have failed to adopt a proactive approach to the manufacturing sector.
When challenged about job-losses instead of facing up to the challenge, they repeat PR spin about how many more jobs they were ‘promoting’ in the economy.
The truth is that over the past few years, Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector has shed more than six thousand high value-added jobs.
While it is true that there have been jobs created, the bulk of these have been in lower value-added sectors.
The truth is that today Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector has three thousand four hundred fewer jobs than it did ten years ago and today there’s a greater dependency on more basic manufacturing sectors.
Centuries of manufacturing history have been lost in a few years. Gallahers, Michelin, Sirocco are written large in the history of Northern Ireland’s industrial legacy but they have all closed their doors.
Meanwhile Bombardier, Caterpillar and Harland & Wolff have all shed large numbers of workers and Manufacturing faces even greater challenges with the uncertainties of Brexit.
The laissez-faire approach – hands off or light touch government leaving us reliant on the whims of the market – that predominates among the heads of the Department for the Economy and Invest NI is failing us.
And what do our political leaders have to say about this? Well, nothing as we don’t have political leaders that represent the interests of the trade union movement and the working class it represents. Unfortunately, this would be true even if Stormont was functioning.
When they were ‘functioning’ – it wasn’t any better. The political parties – right across the spectrum from Orange to Green have nothing of substance to offer when it comes to jobs, pay and decent conditions. When challenged about job losses they answered with spin.
The Ministers in the former Northern Ireland Executive were in denial.
They were in denial when Unite officials went to them desperately seeking action to prevent further job-losses and they told us there was no real risk and even if there was there was nothing they could do.
They were in denial when they then went into the Assembly chamber after the mass redundancies were announced and told other Assembly members that we hadn’t warned them weeks before.
They were in denial when they agreed a draft Programme for Government which acknowledged the seriousness of the productivity challenge facing Northern Ireland but despite identifying more than 48 actions couldn’t find room for one on this most vital issue.
They are in denial of the need to bring forward needed investment in our energy infrastructure, the north-south interconnector and action to lower tariffs on industrial users.
They are in denial when it comes to the current approach to industrial upskilling where we have dropped a world-class system of apprenticeships and employer-led training for one geared to the funding priorities of the further and higher education sector.
And if our own Ministers were in denial and failing to adopt the proactive stance needed to safeguard jobs and to secure new investment, imagine what direct-rule Tory Ministers will be like.
They don’t even respond to letters from Unite when we ask to meet them seeking to promote bids from Northern Ireland based companies for multi-million pound public sector contracts or when we seek to develop opportunities for export substitution.
Since we cannot rely on the politicians, it is more vital than ever that Unite is proactive. As ever, the only people we can rely on to fight for jobs and a future for our members are ourselves.
When we become aware of a threat to jobs or an opportunity to secure jobs or investment we get out there and we engage. We apply pressure, we demand action and most importantly we mobilise our members and their families.
Unite is there striving to safeguard every possible job and to secure the best possible outcome for our members.
In this context, Unite is aware of the particular challenges facing the northwest.
We opposed the transfer of Maydown Precision Engineering to Schivo – indeed our members even protested outside their headquarters when they initiated their attack on our representatives. We told the politicians we suspected that this transfer would result in job-losses but again they were in denial, they stood idly by while our representatives were targeted opening the way for a run-down of the company.
Nothing was done by the politicians. Now MPE has been closed.
There needs to be special protections for workers to prevent carpet-baggers coming into Northern Ireland to asset strip or buy out a strong competitor for its order book making workers redundant.
We have witness this repeatedly across our economy. Usually it happens over a few years but in the case of Chain Reaction Cycles in a few months.
But it’s not just about fire-fighting or securing legislation to protect against job-losses, we have initiated and driven campaigns to demand investment and jobs for those who have been made redundant and to prevent more towns becoming post-industrial ‘blackspots’.
Just like in the case of Ballymena, which counting direct and indirect employment lost almost three thousand jobs in the last few years, the Northwest needs large-scale investment and jobs.
Everywhere we go when we meet decision-makers or Ministers we carry that message.
But be clear many in the corridors of power have highly jaundiced views about manufacturing in general and about the possibility of securing investment to ensure balanced regional development. Unite refuses to accept that.
The success of our world-leading manufacturers shows that Northern Ireland can compete at the highest levels. More can, and must, be done. We just need to put fire under the feet of those in power.
At the beginning of 2016, Unite organised the hugely successful Rally for a Future held in Ballymena last year; securing celebrity endorsement including from the likes of Liam Neeson. That really put the pressure on the politicians of both sides to deliver.
In the past two years, Unite has brought forward papers on our vision for Growing the Economy and a Proposals paper for actions agreed with Manufacturing NI to be included in an industrial strategy.
Indeed, it was our campaigning work alongside Manufacturing NI that forced the Executive parties to perform a 180 degree u-turn and bring forward an industrial strategy. Unfortunately, it was an industrial strategy with few meaningful commitments or targets; a strategy that avoided the issue of productivity and an industrial strategy that included services and tourism! But it was a start.
The challenge now is to ensure that an industrial strategy delivers for industry, and for our members.
We have to continue to put the pressure on.
Northern Ireland can succeed in manufacturing. Our workers are second to none, we have sound infrastructure, our costs are low.
Unite has a strategy.
We demand that the Executive sets itself a target of 20% for Manufacturing output. That would mean an extra 35,000 manufacturing jobs.
To deliver that we are demanding:
- A step-change in investment in critical infrastructure;
- Large-scale public expenditure on capital investment and jobs;
- A surge in R&D activity and innovation;
- The return of our energy sector to local public ownership;
- Proper apprenticeships providing decent pay and conditions and a guarantee of a job at the end;
- Improved wages and union strength across the sector and related industries.
We will move heaven and earth to see these goals realised so that we secure a strong industrial base for Northern Ireland and for our members.