Belgium: Genk Ford workers blockade plant

11 November – Mass demonstration called in support of Ford workers

Since 24 October, the day management announced the closure of Ford plant by the end of 2013, Ford workers in Genk, eastern Belgium, have blockaded the site. Nothing comes in, or goes out. Although they plan to go back to work from 13 November onwards, the blockade will not be lifted. Finished cars will be stocked inside and used as ‘bargaining treasure’. On 11 November a big solidarity demonstration will be held in Genk, estimated to mobilize between 50,000 and 100,000. Ford workers from Southampton and Dagenham in Britain, from Blanquefort in France and other plants in Europe are discussing attending. Other workers, often confronted with closures or sackings, will also seize the opportunity to express their willingness to fight back.

The closure and transfer of the production of the Mondeo model to the Ford site in Valencia, in Spain, was announced by video-conference to a special works’ council. Ford’s European management did not even bother delivering the message in person. Workers and their trade union officials were expecting the announcement of a restructuring, but none thought it would be a clear cut closure. It provoked anger and dejection. The average age at the plant is 48 years. Many have been working at the plant for over 20 or more years, sometimes both husband and wife, with very little possibility to be reemployed elsewhere. In the space of a few minutes, they saw their whole future being jeopardized. The closure means not only the loss of the 4,300 jobs at the plant, but also 1,305 jobs at so called ‘conveyor’ companies, subcontractors working exclusively for the plant, plus another estimated 3,855 jobs in other subcontracting firms.

“Powerless”

The dominating sentiment amongst many workers is one of powerlessness. What to do when such a multinational decides to shut down production? Politicians, the press and spokespersons from employers’ organizations seize on this sentiment, to confirm and reinforce it. After wiping some crocodile tears and denouncing, in words, the brutality of the Ford management, after promising some special re-employment steps, they quickly tried to turn events in their favour. Ford made a record profit last year of $20.2 billion, $8.8 billion from operational activities. But the Belgian establishment claim competitiveness has to be strengthened, i.e. worsening wages and conditions, to avoid industry leaving the country – the same rhetoric that is used everywhere else in Europe.

Unfortunately the national union leaders are trapped in this logic. Leaders from the Christian trade unions propose to reduce labor costs by cutting social contributions. Child benefits and healthcare, they claim, should be separated from social security and financed through taxes, “for example on big fortunes”. Formulated this way, the proposal looks “progressive”. In reality, it is a way to reduce not necessarily take-home wages, but deferred wage instead. Leaders from the socialist trade unions did not yet come up with such proposals, they probably prefer the Christians to open that breach, but it is a worrying sign they do not reject these ideas.

Closure is no option

With such a leadership understandably a majority of Ford workers aim for as large as possible redundancy payment. Ford already suggested 77,000 euros per worker on top of the legal requirements. After taxes, less than half will be left. Workers in subcontracting firms can forget about this. The government policy is, as everywhere else in Europe, to increase the real retirement age. However, Ford workers not only accepted a wage cut of 12% over the past years, making them 5% cheaper than German and French Ford workers, but were also confronted with a huge increase in work patterns. If your job is reading, calculating, dining and signing contracts, then it is easier to go on until 65 and later. However 20 or 30 years in production and shift systems, takes its toll. If the government accepts, against the resistance of its liberal coalition partner, early retirement at 50 or a few years later, no doubt many will seize the opportunity with both hands.

While understanding the reasons for this, socialists have to warn what this really means. This is no more the ‘golden’ 1960s or 1970s when after being sacked workers were easily reemployed in a workplace next door. Today, redundancy payments will be very quickly eaten up and if workers do not manage to get a full working career before retirement age, their pension will be under poverty levels. Furthermore the closure of the plant will not only be dramatic for the 10,000 families losing their income, but the estimated loss for the whole Belgian economy is over 10 billion euros. It will lead to further cuts in education and social spending. In the concerned communities, it will undermine fiscal income with dramatic consequences for council workers and social services. These communities will be reduced to a social desert. That is why LSP/PSL (CWI Belgium) and some others on the Left argue that closure cannot be an option.

Seizure and reconversion

In legal terms, Ford might be the owner of the plant. In reality, it was constructed by generations of workers and aided with public subsidies paid for through social contributions and taxes. For decades the asset holders have made enormous profits. We see now the effects of this transfer of wealth created by the community to handful private asset holders. We cannot leave the future of the plant and the community to a profit-seeking multinational. Politicians pretend there is nothing they can do. In reality they lack the political will to act. Together with the media they have already painted a funeral scene. But why not put the choice before Ford: either keep the site open, with all workers’ involved, or for public seizure of the plant, the equipments and the factory premises?

The automotive sector confirms what was already illustrated by the financial sector: the market cannot guarantee stable living and working conditions. We can produce more then was ever held possible, but it only leads to overcapacity and traffic jams. The period when a car factory functioned on one model exclusively, has been long gone. With rather limited adaptations and reprogramming, the production in Genk can easily be converted to new, socially and environmentally-responsible products. Why scrap a performing plant? The knowledge exists to develop environmentally-responsible means of transport and to really address congestion. Why not utilize installations and experienced workers to create a public company for a responsible and rationally planned transport? We could bridge the time to reconvert by a combination of allowing well-deserved early retirement and by funding fully the Belgian system of “economical unemployment”, as was the case at Ford, but this time with premiums making sure workers receive their full wage.

Mobilize with action plan for nationalization

These proposal go against the trend of privatizations. It will not be easy to carry them out. A strong mobilisation will be required to build the class forces that can make sure such policies are enacted. The Ford workers have blocked the plant. They are picketing according to their usual shifts. Numerous discussions are required to make sure no worker drops away from this action. But the Ford workers are not alone. Workers in subcontracting firms are going through the same crisis. There is a flood of closures and sackings over Belgium and the continent. There is no worker today who can feel their job is safe. That is the reason for the public support the Ford workers enjoy. To mobilise this support in workplaces, schools and universities and communities will be a key challenge for mass demonstrations set for 11 November. Let us not have a funeral march, but a lever for the next protests.

Every mobilization not only needs a detailed and democratically discussed plan of action, but also a perspective, a target that is at the level of the effort being demanded. The LSP/PSL believes that only the nationalization of the plant to save all jobs satisfies this. Contrary to a traditional “social plan” that works within capitalism, nationalization under workers’ control and management offers an attractive perspective not just to the Ford workers, but as well to those from subcontractors and the whole community. Nationalization would not just be a challenge to the capitalists’’ grip on the economy, but also raise the question of how the workplace’s human and material resources could be used for the benefit of society, not private profit. It would provoke enthusiasm amongst workers in the whole country who are themselves confronted with restructuring and closures. Ford has taught us that it is of no use to have a management exclusively interested in profitability with the sole purpose of filling the pockets of the asset holders but that workers better manage the company themselves in the interest of employment and the needs of the community.

14 November – International day of action

We cannot expect anything from the current politicians. ‘Nationalizations’ are forbidden by Europe, except for socialization of losses and privatization of gains. But also in Europe we are not alone. On 14 November an international day of action is scheduled. In Spain and Portugal – possibly in Greece, Malta and Cyprus – this will be accompanied by a general strike. In France and Italy, unions are also calling and others will follow. Public employees in the Walloon area of Belgium, metal workers and chemical and construction workers in Liège, council workers in Brussels and the railway workers nationally have announced they will go on strike.

Pressure is building up to join the international strike movement on 14 November. Ford is only one amongst many examples illustrating the market is not functioning. We can stop the downward spiral, but only if we offer an attractive rationally planned alternative on the chaos of the market. In this epoch of capitalist crisis, each concrete struggle automatically poses the need for democratic socialist transformation of society, but this can only gain credibility if it also offers concrete answers to the struggles we are engaged in today.

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