There’s a right way and a wrong way for unions to confront job losses—and this was highlighted last week by the crisis in the manufacturing industry.
The right way is based on strikes and protests to defend every job. The wrong way gives away pay and conditions in exchange for promises of security from the employers.
The fight at Ford’s Southampton plant is an example of the former.
Some 400 workers there walked out unofficially on Monday of last week in protest at threats to transfer production of the Ford Transit van to Turkey.
They returned to work on the same day but by Friday action had flared again, with 40 walking out on the evening shift.
Tony helped to organise the unofficial protest. He told Socialist Worker that the initiative came from longstanding workers he describes as a “small, determined, crusty group” but who were cheered on by younger workers.
“People here feel cheated, lied to, and kept in the dark about the future of the plant,” he says. “Some also feel that the union is moving too slowly—that’s why we had to act.”
In response to the walk-out, the company has warned all those who took part that they could face disciplinary action, while “ringleaders” have been threatened with the sack.
“It’s now up to our Unite union, at a local and national level, to take the fight forward,” says Tony.
“They have the union machine to call on. If we had that backing, we could bring more than a thousand workers out.”
Ford Southampton is one of many plants where jobs are threatened. The company has also refused to make any long-term commitment to its Halewood plant in Liverpool.
These attacks are taking place across the industry. Last week Peugeot-Citreon announced massive production cuts.
Chrysler has said it wants to slash a quarter of all its white collar jobs.
Dave works at Nissan’s Sunderland plant where the company is halting production of its Micra and Note cars for two weeks because of lack of demand.
“I work on the Qashqai car line, which is not directly affected, but even here the mood is bleak,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Temporary workers and those on short term contracts are being sacked in December, and those of us who are permanent are worried about the future.
“People with five or more years experience are being offered redundancy. And we’ve already been forced to agree to pay cuts of £200 a month for new starters.”
Nissan made profits of £4.9 billion last year, up on the previous year.
Many other firms that have for years made startling profits from their workers’ efforts are now seeking to slash their pay bill in order to keep costs down and their shareholders happy.
They say that unless workers accept this logic factories will close.
Unfortunately, some in the leadership of the trade union movement appear to have fallen for the trick.
Last week workers at JCB were blackmailed into a deal which will see a reduction in their hours from 39 to 34 a week in order to cut back production—with a pay cut of around £50 a week.
The company, which has already laid off 379 workers in Britain this year, said that unless workers accepted their offer, a further 350 jobs would go before the end of the year.
Tragically, the GMB union allowed a ballot on the loaded question and greeted the result of the four to one vote in favour of the proposals as a show of “social solidarity of union members in action”.
Yet JCB is not a company in trouble—it is one of the top three construction equipment firms in the world.
In 2006 its profits jumped by 35 percent to £149 million, and 2007 was better still.
With profits of £187 million, JCB announced that “sales, profits and market share reached record levels”, and that it had been “the most successful year in our 62-year history”.
By helping JCB cut its costs, the GMB will encourage a downward spiral in which jobs and wages will be traded for ever smaller guarantees of protection for workers that remain.
This makes the example of struggle at Ford’s Southampton plant even more important.
Tony says that there is now talk of Unite organising a national fight that combines this year’s pay round with the demand to keep the Transit at Southampton.
This could see Ford workers from around the country rallying around the threatened plants.
Under difficult circumstances, Southampton Ford workers have shown that they can put up a determined fight.
Many trade unionists, including the local trades council, are hoping that Unite will call a national demonstration against any possible closure as part of building a wider fight.
It is only this kind of action—not the selling of pay and conditions through backroom deals—that can prevent a jobs massacre.
That’s a lesson that some of our trade union leaders badly need reminding of.
Some 148 Unite union members at IT services company Steria Ltd in Manchester and 29 in Skelmersdale will begin a ballot for industrial action over compulsory redundancies next week.
Names in this report have been changed