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From airplane wings to ventilator parts

Hilary Wainwright

27/04/20

This week, thousands of government-approved ventilator components will be manufactured by workers for an Airbus factory that normally makes aircraft wings. The organisation of the conversion process is impressive in itself, especially the role of the trade union branch that organises the 400 aircraft- turned-ventilator workers, but it is also a hopeful indication of the possibilities of converting a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy. With short-haul air travel unlikely to recover fully after the eventual end to the lockdown, the experience illustrates how we might move to the low-carbon economy needed to avoid a climate catastrophe without major loss of jobs.

More than this,it also points to the importance of a well-unionised workplace for the efficiency of such a transition.

Airbus is part of Ventilator Challenge, a consortium ofleading engineering companies that are collaborating to dramatically increase the production of an existing but slightly tweaked ventilator model produced by the smaller Oxford-based company, Penlon. The Broughton site of Airbus, in north Wales, which normally makes wings for commercial aircraft, has just been converted into a speciallyadapted, sterile environment for ventilator components.

Government announcements of the project list the well-known company names: as well as Airbus, there’s Rolls Royce, Ford, Siemen and others. But theydo not mention the workers and trade union organisations who have been working day and night to make production as speedy as possible.

These workers are not only highly skilled and committed to adapting their skills to meet the needs of the current emergency – all of the 400 or so working on ventilators have volunteered to do so. They are also very well organised and therefore able to quickly turn their collective productive capacity to a public purpose.

The current health emergencyis generating unprecedented public awareness of those on whose labour our lives and those of our loved ones depends. The volunteers staffing the different shifts to ensure 24/7 production of ventilators are another group who deserve to be included in our Thursday applause.

Most of the 4,600 workers at Airbus’s Broughton site are members of the factory branch of Unite. There are 80 shop stewards, who meet once a week to discuss problems arising from production and how to iron out any difficulties in the current conversion process. They have negotiated a shift system to keep production going 24/7. On this basis the union then asked for members to volunteer for the ventilator project and has been involved in every stage of its establishment. The union’s 60 health and safety reps played a key role in ensuring that the conditions of the production process protected workers from virus infection as they do their life-saving manufacturing.

The union reports that it has a good relationship with the company. After all, in the present context, they are working for a common cause. And if they hadn’t responded to the ventilator challenge, the company would have no work and workers’ futures would be even more uncertain. Markets for airplanes have gone with the lockdown on air travel.

Whether the market will ever fully recover is questionable.The businesses who provide airlines with their most lucrative customers have seen the time and cost savings of online meetings; and ordinary travellers may be reassessing their entire attitude towards air travel as they become more aware of about the social and environmental consequences as well as the health risks.

The present crisis has revealed our global social interdependency to an extraordinary degree. We are witnessing a life-and-death global emergency at close, sometimes too close, quarters. It is almost like a drill for the consequences of climate change and is likely to encourage many people to change their personal behaviour to avoid a repeat of tragedies on a potentially even bigger scale than the present one.

If, for whatever reason,markets do not fully recover, the interests of the union and the company, or at least Airbus shareholders, might diverge. The company  can relocate its capital to any of itsother activities – defence, space or helicopters – even if that might involve layoffs at Broughton. Capital is mobile.

But workers have families and roots in a place and with them a sense of belonging. They have an interest in keeping their jobs. The experience of producing a socially useful product for a public service is attractive and even if the demand for this particular ventilator falls as the virus is contained, these workers know their skills and productive capacity are not tied to commercial aircraft. There are alternatives that are not so environmentally and socially destructive. For these aerospace workers, exit from lockdown might be an entrance to being part of a transition to a much safer world.

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