Britain: Car industry under attack

Unite against the jobs massacre

The Economist magazine recently carried an article on the UK car industry: The Car in Front is British. They talked about a revival and a return to the ’heyday’ of the 1970s. But most UK car workers would think they’re reading about a different industry in a different country. They would be wondering why there is so much insecurity within the industry and why pay, conditions and pensions appear to be under so much threat. A TGWU shop steward in the car industry explains what the reality is for the UK car industry and for car workers.

Car industry under attack

ON THE day The Economist article was published, right on cue, Ford announced the end of car manufacture in the historic Jaguar plant in Brown’s Lane in Coventry. This directly threatens 2,000 jobs and tens of thousands of others throughout the West Midlands and the rest of the country.

This, the week after Ford management pushed through a major assault on working conditions at Land Rover’s massive 8,000-strong Solihull plant, lifted the lid on the reality facing thousands of workers in the car industry in Britain.

Of course, The Economist is a management journal, so attacks on workers are always justified if they result in a boost to profits. The warning is clear to car workers – the future is one where you work much harder for less pay.

The executives may be paid in millions but the price British car workers will have pay to keep their jobs will be in their pay and conditions.

In reality, this is a continuation of a managerial counter-revolution which has taken place within the industry over the last decade or so. Today’s car workers in Britain stand on the shoulders of the past (the 1970s in particular), when good wages and conditions were won through industrial action.

Willingness to fight

Even now, union membership is almost 100% in the main plants. None of this was given by the big car companies such as Ford and Vauxhall (General Motors (GM)). It was a result of the shop-floor’s willingness to fight. But now these gains are being targeted by an increasingly confident (or desperate) management., which is using a wide variety of tactics to achieve their aims.

Some companies like Ford have deliberately moved to break up their national ’combines’ which they correctly see as a major source of strength of the workforce. With over ten plants, representing about 30,000 workers negotiating together, the unions were able to set up national agreements, on pay, conditions and pensions.

Real improvements were won because of this, with workers in low-paid areas like South Wales especially benefiting. During the decade up until the late 1990s, workers won concessions with often only the threat of strike action.

Ford moved to break this up. Firstly, they followed GM’s Delphi Corp in ’spinning off’ their component manufacturing plants into ’Visteon’, which meant in Britain that four plants were immediately outside the Ford ’Blue Oval’.

At first workers in these plants were told that they were ’an enterprise of Ford Motor Company’. But after Visteon was launched as an ’independent’ company in 2000, the real purpose behind the move became apparent. While existing workers remained on Ford terms and conditions, new hires were employed on a ’Visteon’ contract with pay 10% lower (later revealed to be 14% lower!) and no entry to the final salary pension for ten years (now nine).

Without a vote from the shop-floor, the unions allowed management to employ workers on different wages working alongside each other, doing the same work for different pay. As always, weakness invites aggression, with the company now pushing for a third tier of wages! They now want Visteon plants to be seen as ’Tier 1 component manufacturing’, rather than ’car assembly’ – with the same lower wages.

Also, the company has seen the spin-off as an opportunity to become much more aggressive in cutting costs, usually at the expense of the shop-floor. This has consisted of contracting out ’indirect work’ – things like security, tooling, stores etc, with the loss of jobs. In fact, Visteon has become a testing ground for attacks on working conditions that Ford is increasingly using in its assembly plants.

For instance, the use of temporary workers as well as ’teamworking’ – using skilled workers in production, thereby reducing the number of semi-skilled workers and therefore staffing in general.

As well as Visteon, the Ford umbrella in Britain includes Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin as well as the remaining Ford plants, all on separate agreements on pay and conditions.

It is becoming clear that companies within the industry are learning new methods from each other. TRW, which makes steering components just outside Neath, created a separate factory unit within their workplace, called Neath Vale Unit. This enabled these workers to be employed on a new inferior contract.

One consequence of this is that if redundancies occur, and over 160 have just been announced, the established practice of ’last in first out’ could be ignored if those ’junior’ workers’ product is still required.

Now Visteon have developed Visteon Regional Assembly Plant (VRAP) – a similar development with new workers on a third tier of pay, possibly on a local pay rate.

The big car companies are using the ’carrot and stick’ method to force concessions out of their workforces. On one hand, the threat of outsourcing work to Eastern Europe or China etc is made to push through new work practices.

Although, with Solihull, Ford used the big stick of the threat of closure to wring long-desired concessions from the workforce. Apparently, this includes putting video cameras on production lines! In Krupps Camford Pressings in Llanelli, the company are threatening the 500 workers with closure after Christmas if they don’t make ’savings’.

On the other hand, the company gets different plants to ’bid’ for new work. This has resulted in shop steward committees competing with each other in giving up their members’ conditions to secure new product into plant. Inevitably, this can lead to a breakdown in solidarity between plants, with a ’dog eat dog’ attitude.

Also, in this way, national agreements can be bypassed if it makes ’business sense’, for example, allowing new shift patterns or a new lower tier of wages.

None of this is specific to the UK. The rest of the EU is catching up with British ’Thatcherism’. Until recently, workers in British manufacturing were often made redundant because it was cheaper than laying off better-protected workers in France or Germany for example.

While the trade union leaders have confidence in the EU to protect workers, its not shared by German workers. They are having to face the reality of Schroeder’s ’agenda 2010’ which makes it easier (and cheaper!) for them to be sacked.

German workers

For example, DaimlerChrysler workers outside Stuttgart agreed to an increase in the working week to stop production and jobs being exported to South Africa. German Ford workers accepted a pay freeze to stop outsourcing, while similar concessions have been given by French Bosch workers in Lyon.

In the USA, the assault has been even more vicious. Car unions, mainly the UAW, have given huge concessions in order to be recognised by the car manufacturers. In April, the union signed a seven-year agreement with Visteon ushering in a two-tier wage system with the ’new hire’ rate set at $14 an hour – $10 an hour less than those with Ford contracts!

To take advantage of this ’cost-saving opportunity’ fully, management and the union have agreed to Ford and Visteon offering early retirement ’buy-outs’ and transfers of Ford contract workers from Visteon to Ford plants while being replaced on the new hire rate! In another plant in Michigan, the new rate was reduced to $10.30 an hour. Alongside this, both Visteon and Delphi Corp have made thousands of redundancies over the last year.

However, it is not all one way. Car workers internationally have shown that they are willing to fight to defend their conditions, even against the odds. Land Rover workers went on strike this year in Britain, against pay differences with Jaguar. The deal at Daimler was hammered out after 60,000 workers went on strike, securing some concessions from management.

But in America, the brutal attacks have been met with at times, violent defiance. Twelve pickets at the Bedford Visteon plant had to be treated in hospital after confrontations with security guards in a strike over a new contract. The company tried to break the strike by bussing in scabs in a dispute that was started when the union rank and file overturned an agreement signed by the union officials.

In this most international of industries, only by building links across countries and even continents can workers stop the multinationals switching production to undermine their jobs and conditions.

Workers in companies such as Jaguar should demand that the ’books’ are opened to ensure that they are not being cooked to show losses to justify closures. Both Fords and GM are now in profit on a world scale.

Despite what big business journals such as The Economist say, the British car industry is not entering a new heyday. Any prospect of a home-grown car giant has disappeared over the last decade, to be replaced by Japanese and German companies alongside mainly long-standing American multi-nationals.

The car industry is proof that the ’social peace’ of the 1990s is well and truly over. The car giants have decided that their workers have to accept the realities of ’change’ – low wages, worse conditions and inferior pensions.

In Britain, local and national trade union leaderships with the mindset of the 1990s and the aftermath of the miners’ strike defeat, have so far failed to match up to the attacks and closures.

The steel industry is a warning to car workers that endless concessions will not safeguard jobs in the long term.

For younger workers, there will not be the same ’attractive’ redundancy offers, just more insecurity and less protection. Only through mobilising the shop floor on a combine or even industry-wide basis can the bosses’ assault be challenged.

Car workers still represent a massive force within society with huge potential power. With the main assembly plants, component manufacturing and associated engineering etc, there is a force of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Even if national agreements break down, local battles can revive the shop stewards’ committees, particularly with pressure from an angry workforce.

The history of the shop stewards’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s should be studied by the new generation to show that there is an alternative when confronting an all too confident management.

The madness and anarchy of capitalism is all too clear as well. This is an industry that world-wide makes nearly 60 million cars and trucks a year. Its products consume almost half the world’s oil and rubber as well as a quarter of its glass and 15% of its steel.

Ten huge multi-national companies are involved in intense competition with each other, drumming up more customers to eat up ever greater amounts of scarce resources, which further pollute the environment.

Yet the productive capacity that has been accumulated could, in the right hands, be used to transform the world in which we live.

Imagine how public transport alone could be totally revamped and improved with these gigantic resources used as part of a planned economy. Also, without the vested interests of the car and oil companies, cleaner and more efficient fuels could be properly investigated.

Only a socialist society – by nationalising the massive car companies with democratic workers’ control – could harness these productive forces on a national, continental and world-wide basis to start to solve the basic problems of humanity.

Rust in peace

A few months ago Jaguar muscled in as a prime supporter of Coventry City’s new £100 million-plus football stadium – "The Jaguar Arena".

They want the club to agree to its leaping Jaguar logo having a prime place above the new ground. Many fans are angry. "The Coventry Jaguar Memorial Stadium more like" mused one. "Rust in peace" or "Dead Cat Terrace" said others.


A rational society

Hardly a single Jaguar worker could afford to buy his or her own product as it comes off the end of the assembly line. Only the rich and the wealthy can generally afford to do so.

A rational society would identify on a worldwide scale the huge shortage of ordinary modes of public transport. It would be able to satisfy the need for farm tractors in places like Sudan, where the masses face starvation. But of course capitalism isn’t rational, it is driven by the profit motive.

Fighting back in Coventry

THE DECISION of Jaguar workers in Coventry to fight the decision to end car production has boosted the mood of opposition in the city.

Dave Griffiths and Bill Mullins

No one doubts that it will be a hard fight against a ruthless, cynical multinational like Ford. But it’s a fight that Coventry workers can’t duck.

The city has faced closure after closure, now thousands of council workers face wage cuts as the council bosses introduce new pay gradings under the infamous ’single status’ deal. Whilst many people are angry and therefore frustrated the fact is we just can’t tolerate any more.

Ford have told Jaguar workers that there is no alternative to accepting the closure of the plant, yet on the streets there is a mood of: "We will not accept this and we want to do something about it". Socialist Party members on street stalls have continually been asked: "What can be done and how do we go about it?".

Ford have this well-planned. They’ve given no figures, no justification for their decision, probably because Brown’s Lane is the most productive plant in the Ford empire. They made the announcement on a Friday when all the workers were at home as individuals and couldn’t take action. They’ve already sent figures out telling workers what pensions they’re entitled to. They’re offering lots of money to try to get people to leave.

Stand up and fight

But the decision by the workers to stand up and fight is welcome. Now we must turn this decision into action.

At the Labour Party conference, Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the main union at Jaguar, the TGWU, lambasted Ford’s broken promises.

He accused the bosses of being dishonourable and ignoring all agreements. He pointed out that Ford could not have done this in Europe or in North America because to make this announcement without consultation with the workforce would have been illegal.

He swore that the union would not accept the closure and would fight back against the Ford bosses.

Local Labour MP Bob Ainsworth seems shell-shocked at the treatment he had from the Ford European bosses when he lobbied them at the recent Paris motor show. "They told me the decision was made and that that it was not the company ethos to explain the financial reasons behind it". He called for the company to: "Share the financial reasons behind the decisions". Another way of saying: "Open the books".

The Jaguar workers will rightly say to the union leaders: "It’s good that you want to fight – now put your words into action". But Woodley, like the others, seems to think that it is mainly a case of bringing Ford back to the negotiating table to: "See sense".

But it will take more than talking to force the Ford bosses to abandon their plans. It will take a determined and militant leadership that enthuses its members, if the necessary serious and determined struggle is to be won.

Comparisons have been made with what happened in Birmingham with the threatened closure of the Longbridge plant in 1999. Before he became general secretary, Woodley led the campaign to keep the plant open.

Good capitalists?

But instead of calling for Longbridge to be taken back into public ownership by the Labour government, he convinced the people of Birmingham that he had found a bunch of "good capitalists" who would take over the plant from BMW.

Unfortunately these "good capitalists" have been revealed as nothing less than asset-strippers as they made millions from land deals and other financial jiggery- pokery.

The same fate awaits Jaguar workers in Coventry unless the union leaders raise the demand now that the government renationalise Jaguar. The other parts of Jaguar, Castle Bromwich in Birmingham and Whitely Research in Coventry know that their days could be numbered as well. They would also respond to a call for the re-nationalisation of the whole Jaguar group.

But not just them either, Land Rover in Solihull is part of the same "premier auto group" as Ford call it, along with Jaguar and Volvo. They were threatened with closure not so long ago unless they accepted new working practices including video cameras over their workstations.

Land Rover workers were told they had to reach the same level of productivity as the Jaguar workers, who were praised as the most productive plant in the Ford empire!

Ford is a huge company making huge profits. It has got the biggest cash mountain of any company in the world, something over $20 billion. Its mismanagement and lack of investment are the primary reasons for the crisis today. The Socialist Party says: "Why should workers be left to pay the bill?"

  • Oppose the closure of Jaguar.
  • Open the books, let’s see where all the profits have gone.
  • Bring Jaguar into public ownership with compensation to shareholders linked to proven need.

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October 2004