As the world transitions to electric vehicles (EVs), Britain’s proud history of automotive manufacturing is on the line. The whole sector has been suffering from COVID-19 and more recently the supply chain disruption of the semiconductor shortage. But things are moving very quickly and the next few years could prove make or break. As the union for this sector, Unite will really have to step up. We have over 90,000 members in the sector depending on us to get this right.
The automotive sector can’t afford to let the government continue to neglect this jewel in the crown of British manufacturing. We also can’t afford to let the workers like those at GKN Automotive in Birmingham suffer the fate of the workers at Honda in Swindon or Ford’s Bridgend engine plant.
The UK is a world-leading location for battery research and has an amazing, skilled workforce, making it a highly attractive destination for mass battery manufacturing. But we will need more and better government investment to make this happen
It is no secret that ramping up battery production capacity will be vital for the future. It is great that Nissan has announced the country’s first battery gigafactory in Sunderland but now we need to see more of them. The UK is a world-leading location for battery research and has an amazing, skilled workforce, making it a highly attractive destination for mass battery manufacturing. But we will need more and better government investment to make this happen.
So we must fight for serious financial aid packages for consumers, manufacturers and charging networks that are clearly tied to job guarantees. This is an investment in the future. In the past automotive has been a powerhouse for British manufacturing and it can be again as we drive the sector forward into the era of EVs. A serious UK battery production capacity would create jobs beyond vehicle production. Mass battery manufacturing is also needed for jobs around the storage of wind and solar electricity. And, of course it should be part of a proper national plan for manufacturing led by a dedicated Cabinet Minister. This will not be realised by simply complaining about Boris Johnson. We need make sure that every MP in the country understands that if they do not actively push for the necessary support of the industry they will be held personally accountable for the consequences.
Equally we need to make sure that all employers are playing their part. More OEMs need to follow Nissan in Sunderland and Stellantis in Ellesmere Port in demonstrating their commitment to producing the next generation of vehicles in the UK. They also need to ensure that they are respecting their workers. While the industry could benefit from some more of Tesla’s innovation in driving the technology of EVs, we will never accept employers following their anti-union working practices. Nor is it acceptable for companies like BMW to ignore furlough provisions and try to make workers pay for the disruption despite massive Q1 profits.
We could have an innovative, dynamic industry providing more good quality jobs and supporting the environment with exciting new vehicles, but this is a future that needs to be fought for
We also need to see employers signing up to New Technology Agreements that bring workers into the decision making process and ensure that we can defend our jobs and skills base in the future. This will mean upskilling, reskilling and good quality apprenticeships. It will also mean workers getting their share of the benefits to come from new technology, perhaps through shorter working weeks or better retirement packages.
The British automotive sector could have a rosy future. We could have an innovative, dynamic industry providing more good quality jobs and supporting the environment with exciting new vehicles, but this is a future that needs to be fought for. It is absolutely winnable but time is of the essence.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Sharon Graham is Executive Officer for organising and leverage at trade union Unite. She is currently standing to replace Len McCluskey as Unite’s General Secretary
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