Belgium: 3,000 jobs threatened at Ford Genk

After the dramatic closures and the lost jobs in Renault, Sabena, Cockerill and Philips, there is another threat of the loss of several thousands of jobs at Ford Genk.

Against all agreements made between management and unions, Ford wants to sack 3,000 workers. All the politicians have reacted to the jobs massacre in the same way; even before any negotiations they already have given up on keeping the 3,000 jobs. Their excuse went like this: “We have to do everything to save the other 6,000 jobs at Ford”.

CWI members in Belgium have heard a much different attitude on the Ford Genk picket lines, which are organised as part of rolling programme of sporadic industrial action. Workers told us: “Either we all can continue to work here, or we all stay out. We don’t let them divide us: “We’re going for 9,000 jobs”. That is possible, but only if the national unions adopt a different strategy. They should appeal for solidarity from the entire workers’ movement instead of relying on the isolated Ford Genk workforce stopping the job losses.

The planned shedding of jobs in Genk is part of the international restructuring plans of Ford. The global company wants to cut costs per worker by 10%. Therefore Ford wants to get rid of 35,000 jobs in 8 years in the US and wants to close 5 factories. In Europe, 7,000 jobs will disappear, including 1,700 in Köln, in Germany (production plant of the Fiesta and Fusion) and in Saarlouis (Focus). The main target however is Genk.

The Ford Group claims a loss of profits means they have no choice but to make drastic cuts. In 2001 Ford did not make any profits, for the first time in nine years. The past two years it made a loss of 6.5 billion euros. This year won’t be much better. In Europe alone the loss in the first half of this year will be 770 million dollars (according to the weekly magazine ‘Knack’) to 874 million dollars (according to the daily ‘Financieel Economische Tijd’). These are very large amounts of money. But on the other side we see the 56 billion dollar profit made by Ford between 1993 and 2000. Even with the losses in Europe, the Ford group would have already made a profit of 1.3 billion dollars this year.

The crisis in the car sector is having a disastrous affect on the workers of Ford Genk, the factories working for Ford Genk (where another 2,000 jobs are threatened) and the population of the Limburg area around Genk. Furthermore the planned restructuring will cost the community another 100 million euros in 2004. The shareholders and owners of Ford Genk will not be hit by the crisis!

Ford does not keep its promises

The Belgium government of Prime Minister Verhofstadt and Vande Lanotte is exploiting the Ford crisis to promote its policy of lowering the cost of labour. They claim that wages and the cost to employ workers are both too high. The situation in Ford however contradicts this argument. In Genk the wage costs is only 7% of the total production costs! Prime Minister Verhofstadt also proposes to provide extra money to allow hazardous shift work to be stepped up. In other words, the government wants to give public money to the bosses to undermine the health of shift workers.

Verhofstadt pursues this anti-worker policy instead of demanding that Ford keep its promises. Less than one year ago (23 October 2002) Ford signed an agreement that included a guarantee of employment for the entire workforce until 2006. On top of this, the Flemish regional government had an agreement with Ford, just like the national government had an agreement with Swiss Air before Sabena was closed down, in which Ford made a promise to invest 900 million euros in Genk and would get 53 million euros of public money. This subsidy was intended to create four new flexible production lines that could produce four types of car at the same time: the Focus, Galaxy, the new Cross Over and the new Mondeo. It was only on this condition that Ford could get an agreement on the departure of the production of the Ford Transit to Turkey and the sacking of 1,400 workers.

Allies and partners

In the daily paper De Morgen (6 October 2003) Herwig Jorissen, the chair of the metal union inside the socialist union federation ABVV, warned of the “negative influence of the far left”. Jorissen says the closure of the Renault plant at Vilvoorde in 1999 was the result of the “far left” which “wanted a social bloodbath”.

In the same paper Tony Calsterman, chairman of the metal union in Limburg, said the local Ford management would be “our ally”.

In reality, the fight by Renault workers at the Vilvoorde plant in 1999 was boosted by important solidarity actions by the international workers’ movement. The national union leaders in Belgium however did not make the slightest attempt to support the Renault workers struggle with solidarity actions in other Belgian factories, let alone car factories abroad. The Renault plant closed.

The only factory where “the far left” – in the sense of what Jorissen means it – has actually led a fight in a car plant was in Forges de Clabecq steel works in 1996-1997. This struggle resulted in the stopping closure of the plant. This was only possible on the basis of a mass movement, including support from other workers. As a measure of the level of support the Forges de Clabecq workers won, on the 2 February 1997, 70,000 workers demonstrated in Tubize. Yet the national union leadership expelled the Clabecq shop stewards and allowed a court case to be taken against them.

Similarly, in relation to the Renault plant, the union leadership counted on judicial actions and the political lobby, which included ministers from the social democratic SP-A, to police the car workers. The result was that Renault effectively closed down its Vilvoorde plant.

Prime Minister Verhofstadt and his allies now say that, just like with Renault and the Sabena plant, they did not know any of the companies’ plans before they were made public. But, in reality, state security – and its political masters in the Belgium government – already knew in June that there were plans to restructure Ford. Verhofstadt and his allies kept this information hidden from the workers. This makes clear that we cannot count on the politicians to save Ford Genk.

Build the struggle

The announcement of Ford’s plans hit the Genk workers and the community very hard and has had a big impact on the rest of the working class. If unions in big companies, such as Sabena and Ford, are not able to force the companies to keep their promises, how can the unions do so in smaller workplaces? If Ford can get away with this attack Genk will be on the top of their list for future restructuring plans. There is a possibility the whole plant will be closed down when all the contracts with suppliers come to an end in 2006. This opens the door for other bosses to go ahead with their plans.

It could be different. Not only in Limburg, but nationally, workers and their families are looking to what will happen in Ford Genk. Many are prepared to participate in actions. LSP/MAS (the Belgian section of the CWI) therefore appeals for a massive participation on the demonstration in Genk to protest job losses, on 18 October. However demonstrating alone will not be enough to reverse the decision of Ford. A solidarity strike in other car factories, a regional 24-hour general strike in Limburg, and a national demonstration for work will be necessary to mobilise workers in the whole country. We can only count on the solidarity of the workers and their families, not on the politicians.

Such a movement could have important international consequences. In a time of the anti-globalisation movement a movement in Belgium could win solidarity elsewhere in Europe. Therefore the unions have to come forward with a clear action programme instead of “secret” action plans. Ford Genk workers can hurt Ford by occupying the production of the Transit. In the longer term this will only have results if it is accompanied with more widespread action.

What if Ford doesn’t give in?

It is not to be excluded that a multinational like Ford would respond to a broad movement with the closure of the whole plant, even if this were just to set an example. In that case we have to put to face Verhofstadt and his ‘social’ government the following choices: continue accepting the “free” market (even the pro-capitalist magazine Knack speaks about the “totalitarian” character of the market) and see the loss of jobs at Genk or take over the assets of Ford in Belgium, to restart the factory under democratic workers’ control.

Of course, in response, the government would point to the worldwide overproduction of cars (by 24 million) and the European overproduction (7 million cars). LSP/MAS is not oblivious to overproduction. But if the government and the bosses are talking about ‘reconversation’ they mean ‘closure’. Their plans for a so-called highly technological ‘knowledge economy’ is not based on reality. Between the years 2001 – 2002, 23,000 jobs were lost in the high tech/knowledge sectors of the economy and between December 2002 and December 2003 another 15,000 jobs were lost. The reconversation of Ford will not lead to any new jobs. A nationalised company, under workers’ control and workers’ management, would be able to have more diverse production and production that is useful for the whole of society.

LSP/MAS calls for a campaign to defend every job. This could be possible through the introduction of a shorter working week of 30 hours, without a loss of wages. We demand the opening of the books and the nationalisation, under democratic workers’ control and management, of every company threatening to sack workers or to close down.

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October 2003