Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/554/6562
Car industry in crisis: A fighting strategy
The financial crisis is hitting the world car industry for six. Car sales are often the first to fall when boom turns to bust.
The oil price increases earlier this year were already hammering the industry, particularly large car and SUV (four wheel drive) sales across the world. The European sales of SUVs fell by 45% whilst large car and people carrier sales fell 30%.
Volkswagen has announced it is laying off 25,000 contract workers and Peugeot is cutting back production by stopping some shifts. It had already cut its workforce by 15,000 since early 2007. It is now saying it will be sacking 2,000 temporary contract workers. Volvo is getting rid of 6,000 workers.
In America the picture is even worse. Chrysler is cutting its white collar workforce by one quarter, on top of the thousands of production jobs already gone.
Since 2006 the three big American car producers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler/Daimler have got rid of 100,000 jobs. Now they plan even more job cuts. The Bush government is now considering ways of promoting a merger between General Motors and Chrysler, as part of the $700 billion bailout programme approved by Congress. This would be in effect, a part-nationalisation.
The American car industry is more exposed to the crisis than other parts of the world. The bosses were merrily producing SUVs and other large vehicles when oil prices began to soar, now they are feeling the full force of the financial hurricane.
On the New York stock exchange General Motors is worth less than at the beginning of the 1929 slump - now some $3 billion. Ford is worth only $5 billion. These are two companies whose sales last year were $353 billion. Together they employ half a million workers around the world. Their sales exceed the gross national product of all but the ten biggest countries!
British car industry
Britain does not have a British-owned car industry any longer. The Ford factories (Merseyside, Southampton, Dagenham, Bridgend and Basildon as well as Land Rover Solihull), General Motors (Vauxhall in Merseyside and Luton) and Toyota, Nissan and Honda (Derby, Sunderland and Swindon respectively) are reducing production by "down" days, four-day working or other ways of cutting.
Nissan in Sunderland have cut one of two production lines. Ford Dagenham, Halewood and Southampton are on a four-day week. Vauxhall in Luton are on 'down' days.
Workers will be expected to make up for "down" days by working other days if demand picks up. This can be carried over to any part of the year. That is what is meant by annualised hours. These extra working days won't be paid for of course because the workers have been paid for the "down" days.
Other attacks on the workers' conditions form the bulk of the bosses' plans. Pension schemes have been closed. Terms and conditions at work have been radically changed with the introduction of annualised hours. This scheme was forced on the Longbridge workforce from 2000 when BMW took it over but Longbridge still closed in 2005.
Car workers face another period of uncertainty and constant calls for them to make sacrifices. These sacrifices of course don't stretch to the bosses.
Unite the union has made the point that the top seven Ford bosses, who have announced the end of Transit making in Southampton, last year paid themselves more than enough to retool the plant.
What should be the programme for car workers in the ongoing crisis?
First the idea that "we're all in it together " should be opposed by the unions. Car workers have more in common with each other, irrespective of their nationality, than they have with the bosses.
Ford are trying to divide worker against worker by playing the old line that unless workers make concessions, work will be transferred abroad. That's what they have been saying to Southampton workers. But now, despite all the concessions given by the union leadership at national level and unfortunately in the plant itself, Ford are still planning to send the transit to Turkey.
Union leaders have too often made these concessions when what was needed was a militant stance. Ex-Ford workers in the Visteon plant in Swansea, led by a militant shop stewards' committee, have reversed this situation and won a number of victories as reported in The Socialist.
There's no guarantee of victory if you fight but there is a guarantee of defeat if you bend the knee to the bosses.
The workers at the Ford plant in Southampton have taken their first industrial action against the closure plans. The blogs in the Southampton press following the strike are very revealing. The management were asked: "How many workers were out on strike last week?" All they could say in reply to the reporter was: "Too many".
Some workers in the blogs were challenging the do-nothing mentality of other bloggers who were saying you can't win. One said: "We need to know our future now, you can't keep people dangling on a piece of string".
Another said: "They [Ford workers] might be fighting a losing battle but in years to come they can say 'we tried', good luck."
Workers who have got used to making concessions, as recommended by their union leaders, will take time to regain confidence. To build that confidence, there should be a programme of action and demands that workers can be rallied around.
Why should we accept the bosses' figures, when they declare that orders are down and workers should take cuts? Why don't the union leaders demand that the bosses open the books to the unions for scrutiny? Where have all the profits for the last ten years or more gone?
We should demand that instead of cutting our jobs, hours and pay, we should share out the work without loss of pay.
We should demand that the government step up and nationalise all plants that are under threat of closure and run them under democratic workers' control and management.
"Building the fightback in the unions including the crisis in the car industry"
Introduced by Rob Williams
NSSN vice-chair & Unite Convenor Swansea Linamar Plant (ex-Ford / Visteon) - (personal capacity)
Session at 'Socialism 2008' - a weekend of political debate hosted by the Socialist Party
1pm - 3pm, Sunday 9 November 2008 - School of Oriental and African Studies, Malet St, London WC1 - Room B211
In The Socialist 29 October 2008:
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis