The runaway train went down the track

Dave Wilson ponders job cuts in Birmingham and asks if one head-count-cutting company in the Midlands should be doing business with Britain at all.

With our brothers and out sisters from many far off lands, there is power in a Union – Billy Bragg

Just recently, Alstom – the distressed French-owned engineering outfit – won a massive order worth over £100m to build new rolling stock for the London Underground’s Jubilee Line. Subsequently, the company announced that it intends to build the trains in France, Germany or Spain.

But the folks who work for the company here in the UK aren’t a bit pleased for their overseas cousins. And that’s because Alstom also announced plans to close their train manufacturing site in Birmingham putting over 1,400 jobs at risk.

So this week, over 100 Alstom employees who work for Amicus, the UK’s largest manufacturing union, handed in a petition of over 10,000 signatures to Tony Blair’s London home, campaigning for a change in government policy to match that in France, Germany and Spain where 60% of any order must be built within national boundaries.

Amicus wants to see the ‘New’ Labour Government put the same policy in action within the UK. This, they say, would save jobs in Birmingham and would ‘revitalise’ train manufacturing in the UK.

To hammer home the point, they carried with them a seven-foot coffin containing a model of a London Underground train to signify the ‘death’ of train manufacture in the UK.

Once again, these UK union members have failed to understand the bigger corporate picture. You see, while the workers might be worried about the little things in life, like putting a crust of bread on the table for their children, the guys that run Alstom have got much bigger problems to worry about.

Last month, for example, the French government had to step in to purchase a 31.5% stake in the company for $3.85 billion just to help it ward off bankruptcy.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched a formal inquiry into one of the company’s US subsidiaries, Alstom Transportation, over ‘accounting improprieties’ that Alstom has said will force it to take a $170.9 million charge in its fiscal 2003 accounts.

Faced with such problems, it’s lucky that the company has got any sites left anywhere at all to manufacture trains. So let’s forgive it for wanting to make them as cheaply as possible wherever it can. Otherwise, we could all be riding around on antique rolling stock for the next 20 years.

Perhaps instead of complaining about manufacturing jobs going to the wall, the Unions could pose more pertinent questions to Downing Street, such as why we are purchasing trains from such a ‘troubled’ French outfit in the first place.

After all, we wouldn’t purchase nuclear energy from a company that relied on government grants from the UK just to keep it afloat, would we?