US car workers - From Ford USA to Ford Britain, it's the same screw

Jan/Mar 2012

The two articles which follow have been written by comrades from the US Trotskyist group "The Spark".

The first article gives a useful explanation of the background and some detail on the concessions demanded by the Detroit 3 - Ford, GM and Chrysler. It also provides a snapshot of what the fall in workers' living standards really means and the creeping poverty among this section of workers.

The second article gives a highly revealing account of how the car bosses hustled through their new contracts with their workforces - i.e., the collective agreements with the union, the UAW, which have to be ratified by the whole workforce every few years, and which usually change wages and conditions for the worse, under the original pretext of offering annual pay rises in line with price rises.

The car companies use more or less the same practice of national collective bargaining in Britain, with a committee of union representatives, including plant convenors. And workers here will recognise the way the bosses try to hide their real aims, how they lie outright and how they make phony promises. The bribe method and promise of jobs method of getting workers to agree to cut their own throats, into the future, will be familiar to Ford workers here in Britain, in particular!

However, these contracts are particularly shocking coming after a series of 2- and 3- year agreements which radically cut US workers' wages and conditions (the first dating to 2005, even before the recession struck). For instance, the two-tier workforce was introduced 4 years ago, on wages more than 50% less; pensions were handed over to the union to manage, having been cut severely - under a so-called VEBA scheme - which means the companies are no longer responsible for making up deficits - but because the union cannot do so either, it means workers paying a lot more to make up for it, instead. But it also means that it is their own union carrying out the back-stabbing of pensioners rather than the company! In Chrysler and GM, amazingly, the right to strike against the contracts was signed away in 2009!

Readers here may be less surprised by the unscrupulousness of the leading UAW International officials (the top national union apparatus is known as the "International" union). In fact it is fortunate that it is not "international", because the depths it is prepared to sink to, in order to try to trick workers and go to bed with the car bosses - and using almost the same brand of trickery as the bosses - probably outshines the Unite leadership in Britain by a fairly long shot - for the moment!

The fact is, that the attacks on workers in the USA are a foretaste and a warning of what is to come over here. In the US, the car companies have been "pioneering" the savaging of the long-standing collectively agreed terms and conditions which were fought for so many years ago. The latest contracts destroy these conditions even further - and as the second article explains, this was achieved against the will of workers on the shopfloor, with the bosses being aided and abetted by the subterfuge of union full-timers.

At present the Ford Motor Company in Britain is trying to get through a two-tier, pension cutting (closing the final salary scheme to new starts) and "operational flexibility" collective agreement - as mentioned in the previous article on wage cuts. Its headline is a 6% wage rise this year and 0.25% above inflation next year. And on the strength of this, never mind the small print which is devious and drastic, the national Unite leadership and all but one plant convenor recommended acceptance. But the workforce has not gone along with this and is presently being balloted for strike.

What happened before the contract was due, is fresh in workers' minds: in April this year, Ford switched annual pension increases from being calculated on RPI, to the usually lower CPI "to save £300m a year". The workforce had a taste then, of the clumsy betrayal of the union leadership at all levels above the shopfloor: they initially threatened a strike ballot with mock anger and then ended up accepting a bribe (called a "goodwill" payment) to accept CPI without any more quibbling. The bribe is in the form of 5 payments of a sum equal to 1% of workers wages, paid as a bonus, non-pensionable, (and taxable!) lump sum. But given the strike ballot which is taking place this January, union officials are now going round telling workers that if they vote for strike they will not get this "bonus", whose 2nd installment was meant to be paid at the end of the month! Union officials also went round saying that unless workers accepted the new deal offered by Ford, the company was likely to cut jobs (and at Dagenham, close down the already declining Press shop).

For the time being, as in the USA, workers in Britain have not evolved their own forms of resistance to this kind of "twin attack", from union leaders and company bosses, but it is clear that has to be on the workforces' agenda - in the US, and over here - if they are going to be able to guard their terms and conditions into the future and moreover, win back the ground already lost.

The bosses are pushing such severe cuts through because they think they can rely on the union apparatus to help them get away with it. But they are not all that confident - otherwise they wouldn't offer "bribes". At Ford Dagenham many workers made it clear to their union stewards that they did not want to take the bribes, that they were not "for sale", unlike many top union officials. And as was explained in the previous article on the British employers' drive against wages, the plants at Dagenham voted 2 to 1 against the offer, swinging the overall vote. No matter what happens with the national strike ballot, this is a foundation of resistance which can be built upon.