The overproduction crisis continues to wipe out surplus capacity, accelerating the deindustrialisation of Britain. Compared to the thousands of jobs lost in ship-building, steel production, coal mining and car manufacture, it seems almost frivolous to talk about the loss of a chocolate factory in Keynsham.
Yet confectionery is big business, and for this medium-sized west-country town of some 15,500 souls, the local Somerdale site has been a key employer since the 1930s. The social club attached to the site has been an important focus for the local community for generations.
The announced closure of the Cadbury plant by 2010, destroying over 500 jobs and bringing to an end some 80 years of chocolate manufacture on the site, reveals the true destructive cruelty that is inseparable from the capitalist system in crisis.
In the ballot of the nearly 1,600 Cadbury’s workers employed at Somerdale (Keynsham), Bournville (Birmingham), Chirk (Wales) and Marlbrook (Herefordshire), a large majority voted in November to consider strike action in opposition to both the Keynsham closure and additional losses at Birmingham.
As with the postal workers, such ballot results make clear the level of anger felt by workers. The question is: what kind of campaign will best serve their interests?
Many are berating the Cadbury bosses for their selfish greed in unceremoniously dumping the local workforce and relocating part of the operation to the low-wage economy of Poland, and of course they are right to do so.
However, what we are witnessing in industry after industry is in fact a global battle for markets being fought out between rival bands of capitalists, for whom losing the competitive edge spells not a modest decline in profit share but corporate extinction. Behind the greed lies desperation – and beneath both seethes the crisis of capitalism.
The destruction of surplus productive capacity through rationalisation, mergers, asset-stripping and outsourcing, grimly familiar in heavier industry, has not spared the confectionery business either. Kraft has already closed its York chocolate factory and transferred the manufacture of Terry’s Chocolate Orange to Europe; York was hit again last year when Nestlé axed another 645 jobs, and now the Black Magic and Smarties brands have upped sticks for Europe too.
The root cause of the jobs massacre is neither the ‘sharp practice’ of foreign competition, nor ‘Brits pricing themselves out of a job’. Rather, it is to be found in the contradictions of the capitalist system itself, erupting periodically in a crisis of overproduction.
Does this mean that the Keynsham plant is slated for closure because more chocolates are rolling off the production line than sweet-lovers can stomach? No, it is closing because there is more confectionery being produced globally than can be sold on the market at a big enough profit to guarantee the uninterrupted expansion of capital – the sole motive force driving all of capitalist commodity production.
Over the years, advances in automation had already raised labour productivity many times, thereby shrinking the workforce Cadbury needed to employ at Keynsham, and it is many years since workers used to stream into work in droves from Bristol and the surrounding area by train or bicycle. This gradual, silent cull of jobs, whilst it caused little fuss at the time, was in fact the logical precursor to the current outright closure and outsourcing plans, wiping out the whole Somerdale site as ‘surplus to requirements’.
Capitalism seeks to expand its manufacture of all commodities as if the universe were populated exclusively by consumers with bottomless pockets. Yet under the production relations imposed by capitalism, this expansion of production always ends up pushing down the spending power of the mass of workers and thus suppressing the very demand for his commodities upon which the capitalist relies.
This irrational behaviour is not really about the cleverness or stupidity of individual capitalists, or their good or bad intentions; it is an irrationality that springs from capitalist commodity production itself, where the fruits of public labour are appropriated into private hands. The labour of many hands creates untold wealth – which then streams back into the pockets of the few folk who happen to own the means of production as a form of private property.
Campaigning behind slogans like ‘British jobs for British workers’ (or the slightly cleaned-up version, ‘Defend UK jobs’) will do nothing to stop the loss of jobs through rationalisation, outsourcing and destruction of ‘surplus’ capacity. Worse, such slogans let the capitalist system right off the hook and sow division amongst workers by inviting them to blame all things ‘foreign’ for their troubles.
Nor will getting all nostalgic about the Quaker paternalism of yesteryear help advance the proletarian interest one jot. Alarm bells should have rung when the Bristol Evening Post, a run-of-the-mill reactionary local rag, decided to embrace the Keep Keynsham Cadbury’s campaign. One issue of the paper was dedicated to drawing a contrast between the ‘caring employer’ traditions of the Fry and Cadbury families and the profit-hungry hatchet men currently in charge.
The benefits enjoyed by the workforce from these ‘enlightened’ capitalists in earlier years (since the plant began operating in the 1930s) were, however limited, real enough – drama clubs, sports facilities, affordable housing in pleasant surroundings, etc – but were clearly a price worth paying for the preservation of a social peace that delivered eight decades of profit-taking untroubled by industrial strife.
However, the return of crisis to the system is now exposing all this lofty philanthropy as way past its sell-by date, along with all the welfare-state illusions of social justice for which earlier bourgeois ‘do-gooding’ had helped pave the way.
So ‘bring back the Quakers’ is as pointless a slogan as ‘British jobs for British workers’ is a divisive one. It is capitalism in crisis that is gambling with the livelihoods of families in Keynsham, just as it is doing all over the world, and it is capitalism that must be held to account.
The Cadbury’s workers who showed their readiness for a struggle in Unite’s November ballot deserve to be told the truth about the enemy they are fighting, and how to judge success or failure in such a battle. For example, the demand raised in Keynsham right now should be guaranteed job security for every worker at the Somerdale plant, including cleaners, security workers – everyone.
If neither Cadbury’s nor the government is prepared to accept this responsibility, then the demand to the capitalist state must be guaranteed benefits paid to every redundant employee at a level not less than the remuneration currently received, indexed yearly to inflation, until such time as appropriate alternative employment is made available, with no loss of company pension rights.
And if it be objected that neither Cadbury’s nor the state can be expected to deal with the human consequences of the anarchy of production under capitalism, then let the campaign set its sights upon the real quarry – the capitalist system itself.
Owing to the uneven character of the overproduction crisis, it is not impossible that here or there the exploiters still have some room for manoeuvre. If push comes to shove, some jobs might be spared, some retraining might be funded, and so on.
But if such concessions, however minor, are there to be wrested from Cadbury’s or from the government, then a campaign that clearly identifies capitalism as the enemy actually has the strongest chance of winning even such paltry concessions, with the least danger of reinforcing social-democratic or chauvinist prejudices along the way
However, if, as in an increasing number of struggles will prove to be the case, the time for even minor capitalist reforms and concessions is past, then such a clear-sighted campaign would all the more serve to prepare workers for the yet-more-crucial struggles ahead, struggles which will touch not just upon the survival of this or that plant, but on the whole future development of British society.