By Joe Thorne
At 2pm last Tuesday, 565 workers at three sites of Visteon, a car component manufacturer tied to Ford, were given six minutes notice of redundancy. They did not get their last week’s pay, though it turned out that the Friday before around four or five hundred quid had been deposited in each of their accounts in place of redundancy pay. The same night, Belfast workers occupied their factory demanding jobs or proper compensation. And the next morning,1st April, appropriately just before midday, workers at Enfield standing around outside, waiting to collect their things, decided to seize the moment and take over their site too. A side door was either found open or broken down, and the occupation begun.
Perhaps three hundred people stood in the road outside the former Visteon plant this morning, to show their solidarity with the occupiers. The third speaker from the platform, two stories up outside the factory, had trouble getting the megaphone to work, but his voice was clear below. “I’m not used to this kind of equipment , I’m just a worker … but the way this country’s going, we need an uprising somewhere … We’re not just fighting for Visteon workers here, we’re fighting for our children, for our children to have jobs they can go to.”
The Basildon Unite convenor, up for the day with 50 other workers, told us that the plans to close the plant had been in place since 2006, and that the company had clearly been running the site down since then. This fits with the experience of workers in other industries (for example in Carphone Warehouse call centres), where the recession is being used as cover for job cuts motivated, in fact, by ordinary commercial or anti-union reasons. A regional Unite official spoke strongly in support of the strikers. “We will not be found wanting”, he said, adding that if necessary the union “will support them financially”.
One speaker from the Socialist Party demanded that the government “nationalise the car industry … They’ve done it with the banks, why can’t they do it with the car industry?” She did not explain why she thought that the financial sector since nationalisation provided a shining, pro-working class model toward which auto workers could aspire. The slogan of ‘nationalisation now’, dragged once more into leftist language, seems to have little more than ritual or nostalgic quality. Its function appears to be to provide a ‘political’ slogan for the workers, who are thought to otherwise be in danger of remaining stuck in ‘economistic’ struggles. Regardless, the slogan is more or less completely pointless.
Behind the dispute
I took notes from one conversation with a worker, in an attempt to understand the dynamics of the dispute and its industrial context.
The site makes plastic components for Ford, Jaguar, and Landrover, including dashboards. Five articulated lorries worth were shipped out of the site each day. Many of the machines used in manufacture are the size of a large car themselves (and several times as heavy), and only one could be transported on the back of a lorry at a time. They are still in the factory.
The components go to Dagenham, to Southampton for transit vans, to Halewood on Merseyside, and to a factory in Hungary. It is apparently an open secret that work at the Southampton site itself is at serious risk of being offshored to Turkey in the next 12 months.
The worker I talked with thought that no one knew exactly where the Visteon work had gone, but he had been told South Africa. Not long ago, there were 1,000 workers at the Enfield site, on the last day of March there were 210 left, the workload having shrunk, and many workers retired or moved to Ford sites. About 140 of those are engaged in the occupation he thought, though it seems that around half are actually staying at any one time, together with dozens of supporters.
At each of the three sites – Belfast, Basildon, Enfield – the situation is different. In Belfast, where the occupation was earliest and strongest, the workers are in complete control of the site. In Basildon, there is no occupation, as Essex police arrived early and used force. However, according to the worker, there are constant rallies outside, and the site has been shut down, and blockaded. In Enfield, the workers control a large part of the factory, and the roof. Unlike in Belfast, however, there are security guards and administrators on site, and a large part of the factory, sealed off from the occupied segment, is not under workers’ control.
The Enfield site has been open since 1963. According to the worker I spoke with, the union has been strong, and involved in numerous strikes, always with other Ford workers, and always – in his memory – official. The longest strike he was aware of lasted nine weeks. There was no obvious sign of a fissure between the workers and the union. The most prominent organisers within the occupation were shop stewards beforehand. The worker I spoke to understood that at other sites Visteon products were being ‘blacked’, that is, work with them is being refused. Other sources were contradictory, with one suggestion that it is only going on at Southampton, and another person suggesting that Ford had built up 2 months supply of Visteon components, and that since only products from the ‘new’ Visteon sites were being blacked, the declaration was fairly toothless. We need to clear this up.
The workers are demanding, not simply redundancy pay, but jobs. Before Tuesday, any of them could have transferred from their jobs at Visteon to work at Ford Dagenham. The worker I spoke to accepted that jobs were unlikely to come back to the Visteon site, but thought that the jobs should be made available at Dagenham, along the lines of the practice prevailing before Tuesday.
The occupiers intend to resist eviction. They have apparently been told by police that there won’t be an attempt to drag them down. This may be the case for normal police officers, but struggles such as the eviction of the houses squatted on the route of the M11 Bypass squatted (1994) show that police are able to evict even extremely well built defences – but well built defences give time, publicity, and make the authorities more keen to find other ways to resolve the stand off. No question, getting one hundred or so people off the roof will be extremely difficult. Two or three hundred – for whom there would be ample room, if enough tents are brought – would be a major, major undertaking.
Several things need to be clarified. We all urgently need to use any international contact we can muster to make contact with workers in Hungary who use Visteon parts, as well as those in South Africa (or Turkey, it was suggested) who are now doing the work previously performed at the three UK sites. We need to clarify what is going on with blacking Visteon products at Southampton and other sites. Is it more than ritualistic, and if so what effect is it having?
What happens next?
On Monday, the Enfield Unite convenor will be going to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand at 10.30. Speaking from the platform, he told the crowd that he faces jail, and that if he has to go, so be it. There is a call for supporters outside the court, but also a concern that bailiffs will use this opportunity to move in. That evening, Haringey and Enfield Trades Council is hosting a meeting to promote and organise solidarity: 7.30pm at the North London Community Centre, 22 Moorefield Rd, N17 6PY. Nearest railway station is Bruce Grove.
On Tuesday, Unite convenors and shop stewards from every Ford site in the UK will be meeting at Transport House in Holborn, apparently to discuss the dispute. (There have been suggestions of some sort of presence outside, but it is not clear what for.) On Wednesday, Unite General Secretary (and general waste of space), Derek Simpson will be meeting Ford bosses in the United States. At midday, at the Enfield site, a family open day has been proposed.
After the rally group of supporters held a meeting to organise solidarity, from a libertarian class struggle perspective – we will post notices from this informal group as they become available.
Consider one of the most famous disputes in British Labour history over redundancies: Wapping. It is famous for two things: massive, sometimes violent mobilisations with huge popular support; and losing. Consider, on the other hand, the recent Lindsey dispute. This was notable for two different things: steadily spreading and escalating industrial action; and winning.
It is extremely difficult to win a physical confrontation with the British police for control of specific territory, and unlikely that the occupation of the UK sites will be, in itself, sufficiently disruptive to bring Ford to its knees. Our solidarity can have three directions, I set them out in order of importance:
1. Trying to encourage the spread of the dispute – leafleting at other Ford sites encouraging solidarity action, and trying to make contact with related workers in other countries.
2. Building mass support and identification – the occupation will be hard to crush without violence, or a prolonged siege. Whether the state is prepared to try this will depend on the level of diffuse solidarity.
3. Making Ford a target. Ford’s public image should be made to suffer every second this dispute drags on. They have a large number of show rooms, which represent the public face of the company.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Wapping (or indeed the great miners’ strike, or Grunwick), it is that the best hope for any dispute lies in its capacity to spread, and keep spreading, industrial action. This is why I believe contact with other Ford and Visteon workers is so vital.
The workers seem to be a little cagey about letting people in, but there is an open call out for people to come and stay the night, as well as bring money and supplies. Apparently there is an informal understanding that doing shifts of two nights on, two nights off is a sustainable way to continue the occupation. The occupation can be reached from Liverpool Street station in about twenty minutes. We should all make the time to get up there.
Apologies for a rushed report, and just as rushed conclusions. I imagine that some of the above is inaccurate because of things I’ve misunderstood, or because of the rumour mill inside the occupation. Please do your own research, help us clarify the dynamics of the dispute, and how we can intervene effectively. I’m going up again with some friends tomorrow with some money and sleeping bags. Get in touch if you want to join us.