The struggle at Visteon, the union and the development of class consciousness, 2009

Joe Thorne from The Commune analyses the Ford Visteon workers occupation and dispute, the role of the union, and draws lessons for workers in the future. The article was published on 5th May 2009.

Submitted by Steven. on June 9, 2009

Since my first visit to the former Visteon factory in Enfield, North London, much has changed. Following a threat to picket out the Bridgend engine plant, Ford has apparently conceded a full 52 weeks of redundancy pay – though, as we shall see, what has really been conceded is unclear. Workers at the Enfield and Basildon factories voted to accept the ‘offer’ on 1st May, International Workers Day; one month after they had occupied the plant on April Fools. On the day of my most recent visit (Sunday 3.5.09) we heard that Belfast had voted acceptance, in their case by 147-34.

The workers intend to continue picketing at least until the 52 weeks redundancy money is in their bank accounts. Solidarity visits and continued vigilance are therefore still important.
Immediately upon arrival, I was greeted by two workers who proceeded to tell me how overwhelmed they were with the solidarity they have received from all quarters. They told how they have learned in the past month that laws are made by and for the owners, and against the workers. They explained to me that what was needed was for the workers themselves to organise society on a new basis, and make the laws directly, being quite specific that this did not mean getting other, “better” representatives to do so for us, but doing it ourselves. They told me that they’d discovered their own power as workers, and that they wanted to continue the struggle against the government and corporations. For them, the first step would be to organise for change in their own union, which they described as having been something between practically useless and an actual obstacle to them in their struggle. They told me that they’d known, in a way, that these things were true before, but the struggle had placed these things “in front of our face”.

Though it was present in these two workers in strongly distilled and sharply expressed form, development in class consciousness can be found amongst the body of former Visteon workers who have participated in the occupation and picketing (an estimated 70-80 of the 210 workers at Enfield have been involved since the occupation).

The real deal?
In order to get a grip on the present situation, it is necessary to understand that workers do not appear to be clear exactly what they have voted for, and a significant and growing number are unhappy with it; indicating that in retrospect they should have waited for something written down in black and white.

Why did the workers vote for such a deal? “It was the euphoria, the euphoria in the room at the time after we heard 52 weeks was incredible.” Another worker added, “If the vote was taken now… I don’t know if we’d vote for it. I don’t think we would.” There are two outstanding issues:
1. The pensions. There has been no deal on pensions, which leaves the workers with only the government’s statutory pension protection scheme payouts. Ford/Visteon workers have a contracted retirement age of 58, whereas the government scheme only kicks in at 65.
2. Incorporation of the shift allowance into the 52 week redundancy package. According to some, the 52 weeks is only payable at the ‘day’ rate which all workers were on at the time of retiring, while until a few months ago, many were on two or three shift rotations at higher rates.

The ballot, carried out after a mass meeting for, apparently had some peculiar features. Apparently, next to ballot boxes in the plant, the ‘offer’ had been written out in biro. None of the workers I spoke to had a copy of the text, or knew how to get one. There was even disagreement about its content. Some thought that the offer did not include compensation commensurate with the higher wages of those who had done shift work for years up until the months prior to redundancy, while a couple of workers were sure that the biro notice had “+ including shift allowance” scrawled at the bottom.

Why was the Belfast vote put off? Could it have been because the other two plants were more likely to vote yes, and this fact would make the Belfast site itself, the physical stronghold of the Visteon workers, more likely to vote yes themselves?

The role of the union
On my first visit, I noted two things in respect of the union:
- A regional Unite official spoke strongly in support of the strikers. “We will not be found wanting”, he said, adding that if necessary the union “will support them financially”.
- There was no obvious sign of a fissure between the workers and the union.

Since then, Unite has been found wanting, and a fissure has opened up between the workers and the union. One worker told me:

It wasn’t done right from day one. The only time we’ve seen officials here is when the TV cameras were here. I haven’t seen a penny from the union. Apparently Unite gave £11,000 to us across the three sites – but I don’t know where it went. We said to him at the start… we said to Kevin [the convenor], “go independent, don’t depend on the union”… Kevin … he is frightened of officials … he does what he is told. He went to New York, but didn’t attend any meetings. On the 17th March, there is a secret meeting in London – but he wasn’t in there. He came back … he’d spent all the time in the bar, he said “I can’t tell you anything, I’ve got to wait for the officials”. The next day Brian Harris from Unite came, what did he tell us? He told us nothing.

These complaints were common – in fact, of the ten workers I spoke to, I heard none defend the union as such, and only two explicitly defended the site convenor, the link between the workers and the union. Objections were often expressed in similar terms to the above; relating to the lack of information, the lack of practical help from officials, and the union’s acquiescence in the presentation of a deal which has not even been written down, and parts of which have apparently been communicated by phone, not even face to face. As far as the exclusion of the convenor from direct negotiations goes, compare the very similar tactics used by Unite during the Lindsey strikes, and the more confident response from workers.

There is no sense in pretending that only one analysis is abroad among the workers; that in some sense the workers have a developed a consistent left-critique of the union form. However, a clear contradiction has emerged between the needs of the struggle and the ossified form of the official union. Equally, there is clearly a real layer of respect for the site convenor, and no doubt about his commitment, but a simultaneous frustration with his remoteness, and what seems to many like a primary identification with the official union, rather than the workers themselves.

By the by, one extremely odd fact has gone unremarked in most reports. There was a Visteon workers Social Club fund which contained an astonishing £90,000; built up by contributions of 30p a week by hundreds of workers over 30 years or so. It had two signatories, the former convenor, and another worker who was on holiday at the time of the sackings. Both signatures were needed to access the money, but the second worker proved to be uncontactable from the beginning of the dispute until last week. Workers I talked to were fairly sanguine about this fact, despite its apparently significant potential to provide hardship funds for picketers. These workers thought that the funds should now be made available to other workers in struggle.

The decision to abandon the Enfield occupation
Though Unite officials have apparently made some attempt to deny this in retrospect, workers I spoke to were clear that Unite had successfully persuaded them to leave the occupation by stressing the risk of criminal charges for all concerned, and consequent greater difficulty in finding a job, not to mention the potential violence of an eviction.

Workers voted to leave the occupation because, they told me, at the time they were tired, and susceptible to the Unite scaremongering. In fact, it has proved more tiring to keep pickets going at three different gates, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I asked one woman if in retrospect she thought that the official advice was accurate in its legal or practical substance. “Of course it fucking wasn’t”, she said. The official union was actively involved in demobilising the occupation.

It has been suggested by some that, unlike in Enfield, the Belfast occupiers would be able to hold out due to the political support of Sinn Fein, the ruling party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the greater volatility of the Belfast working class. One solidarity activist I spoke to was clear that while these were potentially significant factors, it would have been quite possible for the Enfield occupiers to defend their occupation. For one thing, the occupiers at Prisme in Dundee were able to hold out for seven weeks without criminal charges or physical threat. For another, the much discussed possibility of Enfield convenor Kevin Nolan being jailed was never a serious option for the bosses. If Nolan was jailed – and he declared he was willing to be – then it would have provoked a strong reaction from the trade union movement and the public at large. It would have forced Unite to get involved on a whole different level, possibly dragged in the broader trade union movement, and (most importantly) probably provoked action at other Ford sites.

Sometimes, our enemies are more aware of our strength, and the fragility of their own compacts, than we are.

Spreading the struggle
In my last piece, I offered an analysis of what was needed, in terms of solidarity, for the strike to win: “the best hope for any dispute lies in its capacity to spread, and keep spreading, industrial action. This is why I believe contact with other Ford and Visteon workers is so vital.”

This analysis has been broadly vindicated – it was spreading the struggle that proved most important. However, my previous article was mistaken about the avenues along which the struggle should be spread. I focussed on the possibility of workers’ solidarity from Dagenham, Jaguar-Land Rover (‘JLR’) Halewood, Southampton, or the factory in Hungary; that is the sites which had been receiving Visteon products from the Enfield factory (and probably the other two UK factories as well). This turned out to be mistaken.

Bridgend was chosen for sound strategic reasons. First, it is easy to picket: one road in and out, which ten people could block (in contrast, it is thought that one hundred would have been needed for Dagenham). Second, it is the only UK site to produce the engine for the Fiesta, which is Ford’s best-selling and most profitable car. Third, the shop stewards of the articulated lorry fleet at Bridgend (directly employed by Ford) had approached shop stewards at Visteon and made it clear that they would not cross a picket line – they did not even have to be asked. Each site was ready to send ten people to stay in Bed and Breakfasts in Bridgend in three day shifts to maintain a rolling picket. The stage was therefore set for a confrontation in which the workers were strongly placed.
In most industrial or distribution/retail enterprises, articulated lorry drivers are the most powerful section of the workforce: so it proved in the oil refinery tanker drivers’ strikes last year, so it proved here. In contrast to my rather narrow analysis of the opportunities for spreading the struggle, the workers disregarded the Visteon supply chain and aimed directly for Ford’s most vulnerable point. The dealership pickets no doubt galvanised the campaign, and put a few warning shots over Ford’s bows, but it was the threat of the Bridgend picket, and the active solidarity of the Ford fleet drivers, that won.

What we have learned
This struggle holds a number of lessons.
- Don’t rely on the union to do anything – whether organising action or spreading information.
- Hold regular, mass meetings to hold officials to account, take decisions, and ensure that everyone has all the information they need
- Don’t vote on an offer that hasn’t been set down in black and white, and put in front of every member
- Don’t vote on a deal in the heat of the moment: take time to assess the balance of forces
- Politically, the state is very wary of effecting violent mass evictions on occupying workers with broad support (the Belfast occupation shows this).
- Diffuse solidarity in keeping up workers’ confidence, and building their material and human resources for campaigning is indispensible
- Under no circumstances accept that workers’ directly elected representatives be either excluded from negotiations, or bound to keep anything secret
- Spreading the struggle is the key to victory

Local supporters have done outstanding practical solidarity work. Perhaps, in future, we need to work out how to communicate the risks of the union demobilising the struggle early, and work to inoculate against that risk. A regular picketers’ bulletin may be something we could look at in future.
The next few days contain danger and potential. The workers are agreed that they will picket until they see the money in their accounts. Some workers are discussing the possibility of continuing to picket for full shift allowance and pensions. If they are willing to do so, they must have our solidarity. If the energy industry construction strikes were the first great convulsion of the crisis in Britain, the Visteon struggle is the second. The outcome is yet to be seen, a full balance sheet is yet to be drawn up. Let us learn the lessons. The third may not be long in coming.

From The Commune