Britain - Ford, Rover - the bosses' blackmail over jobs

May-Jun 2000

Over the past four months, Ford and BMW, two of the world's richest and most profitable car companies, have launched restructuring plans which may eventually mean the end of mass car production at Britain's two largest car assembly plants - the Ford-Dagenham estate in East London and the Rover-Longbridge site in Birmingham. In addition to the thousands of jobs in these two plants, several tens of thousands of suppliers' and sales network jobs would be at risk.

As we go to press, everything remains suspended, pending secret discussions which are said to be taking place in ministerial corridors and corporate boardrooms. No information filters down to the workforce whose jobs are at stake, neither from the bosses, nor the government or union leadership.

The only source of "information" available to the workers concerned is the media. But from this direction, the workforces are subjected to a continuous flow of rumours forecasting catastrophe, which seems to be aimed at preparing both these workers and public opinion for the worst. It is as if the car giants' public relations and human resources departments had teamed up to try to create a climate in which any announcement short of wholesale plant closures will be received with resignation, if not relief, by everyone. To add insult to injury the same media, joined by some politicians, including Labour MP Margaret Hodge, embarked on a smear campaign blaming the job cutting plans at Ford-Dagenham on the "militancy" and "laziness" of the workforce - obviously in an attempt to paralyse and isolate the Dagenham workers.

On the government's side, Stephen Byers, the DTI minister, has wasted a lot of energy denying claims that he had been aware of the car companies' job slashing plans long before they were announced. But his denials are just not credible. First because the car bosses would certainly not fail to ask such a business-friendly government for its financial help to restructure their operations in the name of boosting profits. And second, because in both cases, these new job-cutting plans are the latest of a series of threats and blackmail over jobs, which go back several years. And, at one stage or another, both the Labour government and the union leaderships were involved in negotiating deals designed to satisfy the car bosses' wishes. In other words they are lying quite blatantly in pleading ignorance today.

So far, the union leadership has been playing a waiting game. Apart from the odd appearance of the Transport union's national automotive organiser, Tony Woodley, at mass meetings and rallies, making rousing speeches and threatening "bold action" that never materialises, union leaders seem to be spending their time jetsetting between meetings held at company headquarters and government ministries. But absolutely nothing is coming out of this, except a growing suspicion among workers that they are busy, once again, preparing a sell-out. All the more so because since the successful 40,000-strong protest march organised by the unions in Birmingham on April 1st, there has been no follow-on whatsoever.

For the workers directly concerned, this poses the problem of how to defend themselves against such attacks. And they would have the means to do so if they chose to. In any case, judging from the considerable means deployed by the media to try to dampen workers' resistance, this is what the bosses fear.

As to how they could fight back, obviously there is no easy answer to this question, as it depends first and foremost on the determination of these workers. But on the other hand, today, big profitable companies are attacking workers' jobs and conditions across the entire economy, just like Ford and BMW. They are creating a situation in which it is obvious that hundreds of thousands of workers belonging to many different industries are facing the same attacks, instead of being isolated as was so often the case in the past. And this raises the possibility of making the best of these much larger numbers to respond to these attacks not plant by plant, company by company or even industry by industry, but on a much wider scale - on a social scale - so as to provide a lasting solution to the problem rather than temporary respites.

Blackmail over jobs at Ford...

In order to follow the tortuous course of Ford's policy up to today, it is necessary to go back to 16 January 1997, when Ford announced the phasing out of Escort production at the Halewood plant, in Merseyside, with an immediate loss of 1,300 jobs out of the 4,500 workforce. In addition Ford stated that they were seeking cost cuts to reduce Ford-Europe losses. Under this pretext, they demanded a 2-year strike-free deal to secure the remaining jobs in Halewood, while casting doubt on the future of other plants, particularly Dagenham, since its production was also done in other European plants.

Despite the cuts being reduced to 980, the plan was rejected at mass meetings in every Ford plant, with a show of hands in favour of strike action. The union leadership then announced a strike ballot within six weeks and Tony Woodley accused Ford of "cynicism of the highest order" for taking advantage of the fact that "it is cheaper to sack British workers than German, Belgian or Spanish workers".

At that point Woodley had a 2-day meeting with Jac Nasser, then in charge of Ford- Europe, from which he returned with a "new" investment package "won from the company". Provided the government agreed to fork out some cash (Blair's new government obliged the following year with an £80m subsidy), this package "guaranteed" that the Southampton van plant would get new major investment, Halewood would become the sole European producer of a new vehicle and Dagenham would become the lead plant in Europe for the future new Fiesta model. In return, Woodley had agreed to the 980 job cuts at Halewood - although on a voluntary basis only, but this was probably Ford's intention anyway. On his return from this meeting, Woodley declared that "we are absolutely delighted with the agreement [ an "honourable compromise" added Woodley ] which guarantees a genuine long- term future for workers at Halewood" and the strike ballot was called off. Ford's blackmail on jobs had worked thanks to the union leadership.

Indeed, the main purpose of this package was to provide union leaders with a justification for endorsing the job cuts in Halewood, while getting them to support the company's request for state subsidy. As to the "gains" for the remaining workers, they were totally deceptive. First because, as it transpired much later, it is likely that during the negotiation of this package, union officials first began secretly to discuss drastic changes in working practices (later to become the so- called "Modern Operating Agreement" or MOA). Second because, as one might have expected from Ford, the "guarantees" included were bogus and only designed to play for time.

Indeed, later that year, German union leaders also "won guarantees" for their members on investment up to 2010, including on Fiesta production - for which Dagenham had just been "guaranteed" the status of lead plant! Ford's technique was the same as in Britain, except that the concession they demanded from the German workforce was that they agreed to the introduction of "70 corridor hours" (i.e. 70 hours overtime paid at normal rate each year). No doubt, in Germany as in Britain, the union leadership had played along with Ford and presented this significant attack on working conditions as a victory for job security!

However, it was only in March 1998 that the deal made in Germany the previous year resurfaced in Dagenham. All of a sudden the union machinery began to issue alarmist leaflets about the need to secure the future of the plant. But what was really happening in the background was something else. Ford and the union officials were negotiating over a new deal on working practices (the MOA mentioned earlier) conditional on a guarantee that Dagenham would get the new model. This was finally signed on 21 April 1999 and the official announcement "guaranteed" the increase of annual production capacity at Dagenham from 272,0000 to 450,000 vehicles, thereby "securing the plant's future" for the second time in two years. And this time again, it was an illusion in return for a very concrete worsening of working conditions.

Such is the background to the announcement first of 250-300 job cuts in the body and assembly plants in January this year, through voluntary redundancy and retirement, and then 1,350 more on 18 February in order to, according to a letter handed to the workforce, "align capacity with demand in the Fiesta segment of the car market." All the talk was now about production overcapacity in Europe. These 1,350 job cuts, all in the body and assembly part of the estate, were only the beginning of a European-wide restructuring plan to cut production capacity, Ford said.

But meanwhile, the Dagenham Engine plant and Press-Shop are working full blast, 24 hours-a-day and 7 days a week. Ford's project of setting up a Supplier Park on site for subcontractors is still on, meaning that there is no question of really ending production. Whether they announce the closure of the assembly plant for November 2001, as the media rumour mill predicts, or not, it is obvious that Ford is once again trying to blackmail the workforce into agreeing to further attacks on its conditions. What attacks? Only Ford managers and union leaders know exactly and the odds are that they are cooking up one of these "honourable compromises" through which the workforce has lost so much ground since 1997.

... And at Rover

At first glance the situation at Rover is rather different from that at Ford. Its current owner, BMW, just wants to get rid of it - or at least of most of it, whilst retaining a production outpost in Britain, which can always be useful given the significant profits that BMW gets from the British car market.

However, at Rover as well, the workforce has been at the receiving end of systematic blackmail over jobs from BMW, in order to force flexible working hours down their throats.

This began in July 1998, with the announcement of 1,500 job cuts across Rover and the threat of further job cuts unless workers agreed to "flexibility arrangements". Three months later, BMW suddenly announced another 2,400 job cuts at the Longbridge plant under the pretext that the gap in productivity between Longbridge and BMW's German factories was increasing. This time they decreed that unless the job cuts and flexibility arrangements were agreed, Longbridge might be closed altogether. At the same time pressure was built up in the Cowley plant, near Oxford, to achieve a 96h/w working schedule without taking on new workers or buying machinery. In response to BMW's request for state funds to "save" Longbridge, Blair's government responded quickly with £152m offer, which followed on the £45m subsidy already given to BMW for building a new engine plant at Hams Park. All of this was supported 100% by Tony Woodley and Rover union officials, as the best deal possible in order to save jobs. In Cowley the local union officials even went so far as to do the presentation themselves, for the new flexibility agreement, on behalf of management! This was what they called partnership - on the backs of the workforce.

So, when on 14 March this year BMW announced its intention to sell part of Rover - and in particular Longbridge - to a specialist asset-stripping company called Alchemy, with the loss of 5,000 jobs in Longbridge, a lot of workers must have felt a strong sense of betrayal.

In Cowley, which was not (at least so far) directly concerned by the attacks on jobs, since it was meant to remain part of BMW, it took no less than 12 days for the unions to issue a joint statement. And did this statement propose any response to BMW's insulting attacks on jobs? No. It said complacently: "It is generally accepted that BMW stayed with the Oxford plant because of their satisfaction with the co-operation of the trade-unions and their members. (..) Our members met all the quality targets set by BMW and co- operated with new shift patterns and flexible working to produce Rover 75, and this you can proud of." Cowley workers should be proud of, and even thankful for being over-exploited thanks to the co-operation of their union leaders with BMW, but they should see no point in lifting a finger to help their Longbridge mates to defend their jobs - such was the message of the Cowley unions! However, now that rumours have been circulating about possible threats on Cowley itself, the Cowley officials may well have to change their tune...

Since 14 March, Alchemy has slammed the door once and then came back. Phoenix - a disparate consortium formed by a sports car maker, a body panel business, a software millionaire who is also the Liberal- Democrat leader on Birmingham council, a group of Rover dealers and some minor venture capitalists - has made its own bid. But it is just as much a cow-boy outfit as Alchemy, except that for some strange reason, it has the support of the union leadership.

In the meantime, union leaders have done little except lobbying - for what, no-one knows and they certainly won't tell the workforce. There again, one can on wonder (and dread) what sacrifices they are offering to potential buyers, behind close doors, on behalf of the workforce in order to be able to present at least some improvement over the initial job slaughter?

Make the bosses pay!

It is, of course, not a coincidence if these massive threats on jobs take place at the same time in Rover and Ford. But contrary to what the media and politicians would have us believe, there is no economic necessity for these job cuts to take place now.

Indeed whether it be the excuse of the high pound, high interest rates, low productivity in Britain, overcapacity, losses, etc.. large companies such as BMW or Ford are more than rich enough to be able to afford those kinds of overheads. And why should it be otherwise? Why should the workers always bear the cost of the ups and downs of the market in order to allow the profits of the bosses to keep growing?

Besides, some of these arguments work also to the advantage of the job slashers - for instance, the high pound allows BMW to sell more cars in Britain than it would if the pound was low. And others are purely hypocritical. Ford's argument about overcapacity ignores the fact that no car manufacturer would be foolish enough not to have significant overcapacity permanently, in order to be able to benefit from the ups and downs of the market. As to Ford's and BMW's moaning about "losses", they conveniently forget to take into account all the profits they make elsewhere and those they made in the past which never benefited workers. And after all, the fact that Ford rushed to buy Land Rover for £1.8bn as soon as it was put on the market by BMW, certainly proved that its "losses" were not much of a problem for Ford.

No, the only reason behind these waves of job slashing, is the same reason which is behind similar job cuts and restructuring in many other industries at the present time - the bosses' drive to screw more work and more profits out of a reduced workforce at a time when they feel they are in a position of relative strength and they can get away with it. And if they feel so confident, it is in part because of the considerable ground that union leaders have conceded to the bosses on behalf of their members, by going along with their blackmail over jobs.

So today, the working class must see to it that these concessions stop and that union leaders no longer get away with negotiating away the jobs and conditions of their members. And since so many sections of workers are now confronted with similar attacks, the working class must seek ways of bridging the gap between sections and industries in order to be stronger against the bosses. And it can do this by seeking common objectives and a common language which would make sense for all workers, regardless of their activity.

Whether they are making cars or driving buses, doing paperwork in a bank or operating a pneumatic drill, all workers are exploited by the same capitalists, the same small minority of big companies and rich shareholders whose billions are being wasted on speculation in the stock exchange or on useless luxury expenditure. These people can and should be made to pay for the chaos that their system is causing. They no longer want car produced in Longbridge or Dagenham, or bank counters in Britain's small towns? Very well, workers can produce and do many other things - things which could probably be socially more useful. But let the wealthy together with the big companies pay for this with their surplus billions.

8 May 2000