Diageo: “Joint” task force fails

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By Dale Street

In mid-July up to 20,000 people marched through Kilmarnock in opposition to Diageo’s plans to shut down its Johnnie Walker bottling plant in the town, at a cost of 700 jobs, and to shut down its Port Dundas grain distillery in Glasgow at the cost of another 200 jobs.

From the platform at the closing rally great speeches were given by politicians from all the major parties pledging their support for the campaign to keep the bottling plant open.

A government-led task force, involving elected representatives from across the political spectrum, trade union leaders, and civil servants from Scottish Enterprise, would draw up an alternative set of proposals. This would save jobs while also meeting Diageo’s commercial objectives (i.e., maintaining its profits).

Scottish Enterprise commissioned consultants BDO Stoy Hayward to research Diageo’s proposals and draw up an alternative plan to save jobs. The consultants published their findings in late August.

They said Diageo’s proposals to shut down its Kilmarnock plant and reduce the number of its bottling plants in Scotland from three to two made sense.

The consultants’ conclusions about the Port Dundas distillery were equally pessimistic: an attempt should be made to sell it off as a going concern, but, in the current economic climate, it was unlikely that a buyer would come forward.

As an alternative to Diageo’s proposals, the consultants’ report suggested that closure of the existing Kilmarnock plant could be coupled with the opening of a newer, and smaller, bottling facility on a greenfield site in the town, providing work for 350 of the existing workforce.

Diageo welcomed the consultants’ broad findings but rejected the suggestion of opening a new plant in Kilmarnock.

The consultants’ findings should not have come as a surprise. Their starting point was the same as Diageo’s: how to maintain and boost company profits.

One simple way of doing so is to get fewer people to produce more at less cost. That is Diageo’s case for shutting down Kilmarnock and Port Dundas, and for expanding production in its Fife plant. From a capitalist point of view, in which all that counts is maximising profits, that makes sense.

But the costs of that capitalist logic are borne by the workers. For some, it means unemployment. For others it means intensified working conditions. For all, it means constant job insecurity. And after one “re-organisation”, the drive to maximise profits simply begins a fresh cycle of cost-cutting and job losses.

The heady rhetoric about saving jobs has now been replaced by more mundane calculations about trying to save some jobs at least.

Achieving even a “comparably” lower employment loss depends on the Scottish government persuading Diageo to adopt a proposal which — despite the site being provided free-of-cost, and backed up by a government subsidy — they have already rejected, i.e., opening a new bottling plant in Kilmarnock.

The cross-party and union-backed task force set up to keep open the Kilmarnock bottling plant has abandoned that goal. It now accepts the proposals from Diageo for hundreds of job losses.

The trade unions involved in the task force — Unite and the GMB — should withdraw from it, to concentrate instead on mobilising support from across the trade union movement, including the Diageo workforce internationally. They should fight for: no job losses in any of Diageo’s plants; cutting hours, not jobs; the nationalisation under workers’ control of Diageo’s operations in Britain.