According to the announcement made in April by French car giant PSA-Peugeot, the Ryton car factory is meant to be closed by July 2007, with one shift being cut by the end of 2006. Overall, this will result in the loss of 2,300 direct permanent jobs, several hundreds of casual jobs and another 1,700 indirect jobs.
This announcement comes almost exactly one year after the closure of the MG-Rover plant at Longbridge. And despite the media's present anti-French rant, both closures bear exactly the same trademark of crude capitalist greed, no less and no more.
At Longbridge, wealthy giants BAe and BMW took turns to extract massive profits out of the workforce. Then they dumped the factory and its workers into the hands of cowboy "entrepreneurs" to act as undertakers on their behalf.
Likewise for Ryton, except that Peugeot did not even bother to look for a front man to cover its dirty tricks. Over the past decade, Peugeot squeezed as much sweat as it could out of the workforce, without making any substantial investment in the plant. Now that the "lemon" has been squeezed dry, at least from its shareholders' point of view, Peugeot is throwing it in the bin, and the workforce with it!
An attack waiting to happen
This announcement does not come out of the blue, however. Ever since 1997, when Peugeot-Ryton became the first British car plant to impose flexible working on its workers, the company has been resorting to systematic blackmail in order to extract always more concessions from workers, by putting into question the site's future.
In 2000, this flexibility was further expanded, when, among other measures, the weekend shift was told to work Mondays as well. On this, said Peugeot, depended the "future of the plant". This blackmail caused a storm of anger among Ryton's workers and there was an 86% majority for strike action over a deal recommended by the national union leaders of the TGWU and the predecessors of today's Amicus (at the time, Amicus was still split into the AEEU and MSF). Production was paralysed for 2 days but the union leadership threw all its weight behind ensuring a quick return to work, allowing Peugeot to get away with it.
Thereafter, almost every year, Peugeot came back with more demands for concessions from workers, either on jobs or conditions or wages, or on a combination of these. And each time, union leaders, who were more concerned with maintaining their "partnership" with the company, by helping Peugeot to increase its profits, than relying on the capacity of Ryton workers to fight back, connived with the company in order to get the workforce to agree to these concessions.
In 2002, despite having pocketed £14m of state aid to boost investment, Peugeot demanded more concessions, which amounted to a cut in real wages. The workforce responded with a series of rolling strikes. But, once again, union leaders rushed to cobble up a "deal" with Peugeot, which was duly portrayed as a "victory" to the workforce: in return for the wage cuts, Peugeot claimed to "guarantee" the future of the plant and, as proof of its good faith, it undertook to create a night shift.
The night shift was created alright, but it was no "concession" on Peugeot's part. In fact, Peugeot needed to increase its production of the upmarket version of the 206 so badly that it even created an additional shift on top of the one it had promised. By that time the workforce reached over 4,500 workers.
Nevertheless, at the end of 2003, Peugeot came back with the announcement that the 700-strong night shift would have to go. This time, Peugeot's blackmail became more precise: if the cut was not agreed, the plant would not get the new model which was to replace the 206 at the end of its life, the future 207. Again workers reacted with stoppages, but the union leaders soon came back with another of their "victories": if workers were willing to accept another wage cut (in the form of a reduction of working hours without compensation), the night shift would remain and the threat of not getting to produce the 207 would be lifted. Seeing no other way, the workforce agreed to give up some of their wages for their mates in the night shift. But Peugeot's promise was only designed to play for time. Six months later, the night shift was cut, without consultation and, of course, without restoring its wage cut to the workforce.
And the job cuts went on. In March last year, it was the turn of the weekend shift to fall under the axe, with 700 redundancies. Under the pretext that the factory's "sales" had fallen by 9% (but then, of course, what is the meaning of the "sales" of a single plant in a giant company like Peugeot and who can verify such a claim?) the workforce was asked to agree to cut of over 25% of its number - probably what business schools would call the arithmetic of class exploitation! Once again this was presented as the price to pay to avoid losing the future 207. And predictably, as this was taking place shortly before the 2005 General Election, the union leadership did not even leave the door open for more negotiations - as far as they were concerned this was a done deal and the workforce was left high and dry.
Peugeot's latest announcement that Ryton is to be closed, is yet another illustration of the fact that the bosses' promises should never be trusted, especially when they are designed to justify attacks on jobs and conditions! Peugeot's management lied through their teeth all along during these years. Judging from the insignificant investment made on the Ryton site, they probably never intended to keep the plant in operation once the 206's shelf life was over - that is, unless unforeseen circumstances or the fear of a major backlash from the workforce forced them to do otherwise.
Whatever Peugeot's real plans were, assuming they had any, it was clear, right from 2000, that the company was up to no good regarding jobs. It had to be kept on its toes and workers had to be morally prepared and organised in preparation for a confrontation, which was likely to be tough.
But instead of preparing the Ryton workforce for this confrontation, instead of ensuring, by organising a systematic resistance to its attacks, that Peugeot would think twice before making any move against the Ryton workers, the union leaders played along with the company's blackmail. They smoothed out the implementation of its attacks on conditions by giving credit to the bosses' lie that the only way to "save jobs" is to boost shareholders' dividends by boosting "competitiveness"! Just as they fed illusions among the workforce, by underwriting the company's false promises of a "secure" future.
The union leaders' policy has now led the Ryton workers into a corner. This does not mean that it is too late for them to derail Peugeot's plans, far from it, but it means that they start from a more difficult position.
The union leaders' legalistic cover up
What was the union leaders' response to Peugeot's announcement? Both Woodley, for the TGWU, and Simpson, for Amicus, threw up their arms in despair and blamed British labour laws, which according to them make it easier to sack workers than in France! Simpson even produced a press release entitled: "Ten reasons why it is harder to sack a French worker than a British one."
But the unions' legalistic argument is a pack of hypocritical lies. Amicus' "Ten reasons" claims, for instance: "On average in France it costs £100,000 to make a French worker redundant. In Britain, the maximum allowed for statutory redundancy is £5,000 for 20 years service." This is plain ridiculous. Every one knows that in most large companies, especially in the car industry, local agreements result in redundancy payments which are far higher than this theoretical maximum. They are usually set at a level which is largely proportional to the relationship of forces - i.e. the degree of havoc that the company fears in case it does not come up with the goods. As to France, if making workers redundant was so costly there, why is it that French companies have been shedding jobs right, left and centre over the past decade. Are French companies so much richer than British companies, since they are not less profitable? Of course not, but this bogus figure fits in with the Amicus argument.
In fact, the situation in Peugeot's factories in France speaks for itself. Between 1999 and 2004, Peugeot cut 2,400 permanent jobs in its French factories, while increasing their production from 250,000 vehicles a year to 425,000! And since October 2005, another 2,160 jobs have been cut in Peugeot's four largest French production sites, at Sochaux, Aulnay, Poissy and Mulhouse. Obviously French legislation is not doing very much to help Peugeot workers to stop the company from slashing their jobs in France! And no wonder. Whether in France, Britain, or anywhere else, in this society, the law is never designed to damage capitalist profit, but to protect it against the working class.
On the other hand, Amicus' "Ten reasons" goes to great pains to spell out what union leaders would really like to see written into British law. They would like a statutory right to be consulted by companies over their plans (which Blair has already granted to a limited extent), involving lengthy procedures in which union officials would sit down with managers and accountants for days and weeks, to bicker over the best way (i.e., more often than not, the least painful way for the company's profits) to cut jobs and "boost competitiveness".
But would such statutory rights improve workers' ability to counter job cuts? In France, they certainly have not helped to prevent job cuts. Here, they would probably help union leaders to increase their apparent importance in front of their members, while reinforcing their position in their much cherished "partnership" with the bosses.
However, in the usual day-to-day operation of union structures, everything is already treated as "confidential" and only a trickle of information is ever released to the membership, not to mention non-unionised workers who are never told anything. Judging from the way wage negotiations take place, it is not hard to imagine that any consultation on such a sensitive matter as job cuts would be enshrined in such a web a secrecy that workers would be none the wiser and, in any case, totally unable to control what union leaders are negotiating in their names.
The long saga of Peugeot's blackmail at Ryton, in which the unions were duly consulted at every stage, is there to show that the issue is not one of consultation, but one of willingness to organise a fight back. Faced with a militant response from the workforce which threatens their profits, employers will always have no choice but to "consult" with the workers' representatives, whether it is written into the law or not. But, ultimately, without this militant response, such consultations are merely a recipe for a bad deal on the back of the workforce.
The poison of nationalism
Simpson concludes Amicus' "Ten reasons" with this statement: "The government must take action to protect British manufacturing employment. Job protection similar to that enjoyed by workers in France would give British employees the opportunity to compete for investment and work on important issues like productivity and efficiency".
This puts in a nutshell the ominous implications of the union leaders' response: it would be so much better if Peugeot was closing down one of its French plants rather than Ryton! To hell with French workers, they are "competitors"!
But this is exactly the state of mind that Peugeot has tried for years to instill in Ryton workers, by telling them that they had to sweat always still more, in order to be more "competitive" than their continental counterparts. The union leaders are just taking over the bosses' divide and rule propaganda according to which British Peugeot workers should feel in competition with their French workmates, despite being on the same side in the class struggle.
Not only is this nationalistic approach denying the common interests that exist between the workers of all countries, especially when they are exploited by the same bosses, but it is diverting attention from the real enemy - Peugeot, the real culprit, which threatens jobs at Ryton. If the Ryton workers were to take seriously this nationalist garbage, they would be trapped with their hands tied, by the lack of any objective to defend their jobs.
It is sadly ironical that Simpson and Woodley, who both claim demagogically to be part of the "awkward squad" - i.e. representatives of the anti-Blair left and vocal opponents of the BNP - should whip up the sort of xenophobic feelings that are normally the preserve of the far-right. To be sure, especially in a region like the Midlands, where the far-right has been raising its head lately, it is not just ironical, it is plainly and simply irresponsible!
Moreover, this nationalistic stance has an ultimate logic. It is even spelt out by Simpson: Blair should protect British manufacturing employment so that workers can "compete" on important issues like "productivity and efficiency". In other words, Simpson demands the right for British workers to kill themselves on the job in order to lure investment into the country! How far would Simpson be willing to agree to a turn of the productivity screw under the pretext of competing with "foreign" workers? 15-hour shifts on the line? A 60-hour week? A 50% cut in wages? How far exactly? Because this is how the bosses really measure productivity and efficiency, not in technological terms, but in terms of how much they can cut their wage bills!
Is this in the interests of British workers? Certainly not. Neither at Ryton, nor anywhere else. Of course, this logic is consistent with the union leaders' determination to maintain their "partnership" with the bosses, by helping them to improve their profits. But the Ryton workers know all too well, by now, the cost of such a "partnership". The bosses' profits should remain their problem and their problem only. The working class has its own interests to defend - and, as a rule, this involves denting the bosses' profits, not boosting them!
No begging bowl, but a militant fight back
Ultimately, Woodley's and Simpson's inference is that there is nothing Ryton workers can do, except to go to Blair with a begging bowl in the hope that he will help them out.
But this is just another dead end. This Labour government has shown time and again on whose side it is - the bosses' side. Everyone remembers the arrogant contempt of one of its ministers, Margaret Hodge, stating that the sacked MG-Rover-Longbridge workers had nothing to complain about, since they would have no difficulties in finding a supermarket job!
Not only does Blair's government wash its hands of job cuts and any "restructuring" carried out by companies at the expense of their workforce, so long as it helps them to increase their profits, but it has gone out of its way to facilitate the biggest job-slashing mechanism - the process of casualisation - which the union leadership has done nothing to oppose on any scale
In this respect as well, Blair's government acts in exactly the same way as any other government in the rich countries, whether in France or elsewhere. The recent wave of demonstrations in France (see the articles on France in the present issue), which were triggered by yet another piece of legislation designed to facilitate casualisation, are there to show that French workers are confronted with exactly the same attacks as we are, here, in Britain. The good news about France is that the demonstrators have succeeded in forcing the French government into a humiliating retreat - on one measure at least, although not on casualisation as a whole by far.
If the recent events in France show anything, it is that, here as well, it would be possible to challenge the "flexible labour market" that Blair and the bosses are imposing on the working class, and the job cuts that inevitably come with it, but certainly not with a begging bowl!
Of course, it would be an entirely different story if what the union leadership was proposing was an offensive against job cuts and casual labour, with Ryton as a starting point. But there is no question of this. At the time of writing, the union leaders' attitude on Ryton is that any action in the plant would be counter-productive in view of the negotiations they hope to have with Peugeot. But this already means accepting the job cuts and discussing their terms, even before the factory is closed or any fight against the closure has taken place. The most the union leaders seem to have suggested so far, in terms of "action", is the organisation of symbolic pickets by trade-union activists outside Peugeot dealers across the country - but nothing in which the Ryton workers, who are the most concerned by the closure, could be involved themselves!
However, the Ryton workers have a long fighting history. Many times they have had to bypass the union leadership's obedience to the bosses in order to defend their jobs and conditions. It is not too late for them to do it again.
Peugeot is an immensely rich company, whose shareholders have pocketed £5bn over the past five years alone, by cutting jobs and stepping up the exploitation of the remaining workforce. And they would have more than enough cash to foot the bill for keeping the Ryton plant open, even if it means paying workers for doing nothing until new investment is made there.
Besides, Peugeot is not in as strong a position as it may seem. Outside the Ryton site, it still employs thousands of workers in Britain, both directly and indirectly, through subcontractors. Ford workers, for instance, are producing some of Peugeot's diesel engines at Dagenham. Not to mention the fact that Britain is still Peugeot's 2nd largest market in Europe. And if the Ryton workers decided to fight back, they could count on the solidarity of these workers, but also of the tens of thousands of Peugeot workers on the continent, who are at the receiving end of the same kind of attacks from the same greedy bosses.
There is only one way for workers to stop the bosses' attacks - by making sure that these bosses fear their reactions and collective strength. If there is a future for workers, whether at Ryton or in any other factory or industry, it can only lie in their determination to stand up and fight back!