Car Industry Under Threat

FORD WORKERS at Dagenham, east London are balloting for industrial action in defence of jobs. After assurances from the Ford Motor Company in 1997, none of the promised $425 million investment has materialised. Instead, production of the new Fiesta is switching to Cologne, Germany, and the assembly plant at Dagenham is to be closed. A Yes vote is essential to begin the fight back.

Manny Thain

After 70 years’ continuous production at least 3,500 jobs will go, another 6,000 related components jobs will be lost, with thousands more from shops and businesses in and around Dagenham itself. In total, 15% of what remains of London’s manufacturing employment is threatened.

And Ford Motor Company is flush with cash – it has $13 billion in reserve. It recently bought LandRover from BMW for £2 billion. Despite the fact that Dagenham workers have reached higher productivity rates on lower labour costs than elsewhere in Europe, the legacy of Tory anti-trade union legislation – retained by Tony Blair’s New Labour – is that it is cheaper and easier to sack workers in Britain.

With massive overcapacity in the world car industry, Ford management has decided to cut back. But it will still add to last year’s $2.7 billion record profits. The shareholders will continue to receive dividends which have been increasing by 10% year-on-year. It is the workforce who will pay the price if the plans go ahead.

How can Ford workers fight this vicious attack? This will be a hard struggle against a massive multinational with huge resources, backed by a New Labour government which kneels down to big business.

Ford management has used a divide-and-rule policy at Dagenham. Promises to build a new engine hall have been used to try and undermine the unity of the workers.

Ultimately, the workers hold immense power in their hands. There can be no mega-profits without vehicles to sell. The international interconnection of the different Ford plants and just-in-time methods of production mean that European-wide production can grind to a halt in a matter of days when key sections of workers strike.

Translating the latent power of Ford workers into effective and determined action requires clear and determined union leadership.

National officials like Tony Woodley of the Transport and General Workers Union, want a Yes vote in the ballot. That would strengthen their hands in negotiations.

But many workers are not convinced that they would be committed to an all-out and bitter battle.

The union came under harsh criticism from Ford workers at a public meeting on 14 November. And that criticism was not only levelled at the national officials. Although the unions have produced two leaflets, they have not been properly distributed at Dagenham.

Even the mass meetings the day before the ballot played into management’s hands. Instead of one meeting bringing together the whole workforce, where a show of hands could have demonstrated the strength of feeling and give the workers a sense of their own power, three meetings on different sites were organised.

The workforce must regain control of their union. Officials, convenors and shop stewards have to be made accountable to the union members they represent. If any of the workers’ representatives are not willing or able to lead this vital struggle, they should be replaced by those who will. That was a key lesson of the strike at Peugeot in the West Midlands earlier this year.

Support can also be mobilised in the local community and throughout east London.

A Yes vote should be the trigger for a national campaign in all the other Ford factories and subcontractors. The Basildon radiator plant is under threat, as is the foundry at Leamington, the Halewood body plant, Southampton and others. Ford management has cynically used subcontractors to run down general terms and conditions and undermine national negotiations.

All the unions involved could use those issues to link up Ford workers nationally so that Dagenham is not fighting alone. That would provide a national platform from which to call for solidarity from European Ford workers.

With initiatives like a national demonstration and the demand for the nationalisation of Ford and the whole car industry – under workers’ control and management as opposed to the bureaucratic bungling of the past – massive support could be built to defend Ford Dagenham jobs and the entire industry.