by Adam Ford
The recent reinstatement of union convenor Rob Williams by his bosses at the Linamar car parts factory is a welcome victory for the Swansea workers, as well as all those who expressed their solidarity. Amongst the celebrations, however, caution is needed. Linamar are likely preparing a counter-attack, and this is just one front in a global war on car workers’ conditions.
Linamar sacked Williams on April 28th. According to the company, there had been an “irretrievable breakdown of trust”.
The company’s use of the word ‘trust’ – even though it had apparently broken down – is instructive. It pretends that there is some common interest between capitalists and the workers whose labour they exploit. For this reason, a modern boss expects to ‘trust’ the onsite representative of the workforce – i.e. be able to tell that rep they intend to make an attack on pay, jobs or working conditions, then expect that rep to meekly accept it. This top-down pyramid of power leaves no room for workers having the slightest say on matters that shape their lives.
By all accounts, Linamar had good reason not to trust Williams, a dedicated class fighter. In the weeks running up to his sacking, he had shown support to sacked Visteon workers occupying factories in Belfast, London and Essex. This solidarity with people in active resistance must have frightened Williams’ bosses, for two reasons. Firstly, like Linamar, Visteon is a company with strong links to Ford (indeed Visteon sold the Swansea site to Linamar last July). Secondly, as the recession takes hold and car sales plummet, Linamar Group President Brian Wade intends to attack wages and conditions at Swansea.
In the month between the 6th May confirmation of his sacking and Linamar’s concession, Williams told rallies about talks between Wade and Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite the union. According to Williams, Wade spoke of ‘buying down’ – i.e. worsening contracts – in return for a one-off ‘sweetener’. Though no further details are available in this case, union tops around the world have regularly responded favourably to such deals/ultimatums over the past few decades, and especially since this catastrophic economic collapse began. Like the corporate bosses, they have a parasitical relationship with ‘their’ workers, living off union dues rather than unpaid surplus labour.
Linamar finally reinstated Williams on 10th June, with just hours to spare before an indefinite strike was set to begin. The ballot for strike action had passed by 139 to 19, on a turnout of over 90 percent. Woodley then took a week to name the first strike date. It is not possible to know what happened behind the scenes, but we can examine the social pressures involved.
Linamar want to attack pay and conditions. Linamar workers want to defend what they have. Tony Woodley, as a union bureaucrat, wants to keep as many union members as possible, and has the power to negotiate sacrifices ‘on behalf of’ those he must force to swallow the bitterness, albeit with a ‘sweetener’.
The Linamar standoff is only a small part of a bosses’ onslaught against car workers. With UK sales down a quarter in May compared to a year ago, and similar figures throughout the wealthiest nations, the ‘Big Three’ companies – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford – are in real financial trouble, and are making ferocious cutbacks. This has provoked preliminary worker resistance in many countries, and this will only intensify when more dodgy deals are struck over the coming months.
As a globalised economy crashes, international labour struggles are coming. It promises to be an exciting time, as well as a time of hardship for workers in struggle. Such workers must find allies amongst their counterparts, wherever they live on the planet, because ultimately they won’t find them in union headquarters.
The global crisis, caused by the chaos and calculated insanity of capitalism, requires a global working class response.