It is not just crisis-hit firms going to the wall, or public employees losing their jobs as governments fuel recession by cutting spending. Profitable firms also close as capitalists seek greater and greater profits. This is not because of ‘greed’, but because the onset of capitalism’s third great depression means that more and more capital is chasing fewer and fewer investment opportunities, driving down the rate or profit and forcing firms to cut production costs to the bone.
A couple of weeks ago the employees of MSD, a pharmaceuticals factory in Oss in the Netherlands were undoubtedly, like the rest of their compatriots, looking forward to seeing a triumphant end to what was shaping up to being, for the Dutch, a memorable World Cup.
That hope, of course, went unfulfilled. But by the time the national team lost a not particularly memorable final to Spain, the MSD workers had a great deal more on their minds than Arjan Robben’s fatal missed sitter or Nigel De Jong’s attempt to merge the sports of Association Football and Kung Fu. What 2,175 of them no longer had was a job.
The total population of Oss is less than 80,000, and as well as those directly affected it is estimated that 2,000 more local people and 3,000 elsewhere will end up unemployed as firms supplying the pharmaceutical plant are hit. That is not counting, of course, the people who will be affected by the absence of the euros which will no longer be available to all of those people to spend.
Factory closures are always unpleasant for those affected, but if a firm is losing money it is hard to see how it can continue to operate indefinitely. Under such circumstances, the workers’ plight becomes a social responsibility and the state must step in to ensure adequate unemployment benefits, retraining and so on. This can happen in any kind of society, but it is not what has happened in Oss.
As Paul Ulenbelt, MP and employment spokesman for the radical left Socialist Party (SP) says, “Everyone understands that a firm which is no longer able to sell its products must close, but Organon is very much alive and kicking. It’s totally unacceptable that a company should close because shareholders can make a few more percentage points of profit elsewhere.”
MSD used to be called Organon. And Organon is no ordinary firm. Based in Oss since 1925, it was one of the first companies to manufacture insulin. In the 1960s it played a major role in the development of the contraceptive pill, and in 1981 introduced the low-dose pill. Since then, it has continued to be at the cutting edge of contraceptive pharmacology and technology. Oss is, according to the firm’s own website “the company’s principal knowledge centre for research and development, and production.”
So why is Organon, a firm with a relatively clean reputation in the dirty world of pharmaceuticals, a modern company making genuinely useful products which save and improve lives, about to sack half of its workforce in Oss?
Firstly, this is not a result of the crisis. While the economic crisis looms over all of our lives, these jobs are being sacrificed to a quite different monster, and one which has been around longer: neoliberalism.
Organon-MSD may have a better ethical reputation than other pharmaceutical manufacturers, but it is a capitalist enterprise in a capitalist market, and a highly successful one. In the last quarter of 2009, the firm made global net profits of over £4 billion.
The Oss closure is part of a ‘restructuring’ exercise designed by people in the conglomerate headquarters on the other side of the Atlantic in New Jersey. These people do not make their livelihoods researching and manufacturing pharmaceuticals or anything else of value, but by trading in companies, in productive facilities, and, ultimately, in other peoples’ livelihoods.
This time, however, they may have bitten off more than they can chew. For Oss is not only the home of Organon, it is the birthplace of the SP and home of its charismatic former leader, Jan Marijnissen. And the SP, Marijnissen, the workers at MSD and the people of Oss are gearing up for a fight.
To the faceless men who took the decision to close the plant, Marijnissen says, “Oss is only a spot on the map, a speck of fluff that you can blow away. But we’re no speck of fluff. We have a duty to use every means possible to resist this injustice, to counter this scandalous decision. Organon belongs to us. It was built by our grandfathers and grandmothers and our parents.” It had, he says, done much to benefit humanity and at the same time enjoyed good labour relations. But since the company was taken over by an American transnational “it has been obvious that another wind was blowing.” The firm had then been sold “like a cow at market” to MSD, and things had gone further downhill.
This then, is a tale of our times. It is not just crisis-hit firms going to the wall, or public employees losing their jobs as governments fuel recession by cutting spending. Profitable firms also close as capitalists seek greater and greater profits. This is not because of ‘greed’, but because the onset of capitalism’s third great depression means that more and more capital is chasing fewer and fewer investment opportunities, driving down the rate or profit and forcing firms to cut production costs to the bone.
MSD/Organon is just the kind of company that the Dutch state and the European Commission claim to want to see. If this company does not represent the ‘knowledge economy’, if it is not high-tech, forward-looking and innovative, then what is?
None of that matters. Capitalism is engaged in a fight for survival. Nobody’s livelihood is safe.
The people of Oss, however, are showing us how to fight back. An action committee has been formed and Saturday witnessed a huge demonstration in the town under the slogan ‘Organon belongs to Oss’. At the same time, the SP has won cross-party support for a recall of Parliament to debate the matter with the Minister for Employment.
The party, which led the successful campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the European Constitution referendum of 2005, has long demonstrated masterly organisational skills and the determination to succeed.
These qualities will be needed in Oss. They are needed everywhere. The question is, where can they be found, or will we all simply be led like lambs to the slaughter as, in country after country, government and opposition collaborate in the destruction of everything we have gained?