Picket line anger as Peugeot workers strike
Fed up with being worked like robots
Charlie Kimber reports from the picket line
"THIS PLACE is hell on the hill. We want our lives back." That was how one worker at Peugeot's plant in Coventry explains the massive feeling behind their strike which has forced bosses into a humiliating retreat. Almost 3,000 workers at Peugeot struck for a day on Thursday of last week. They struck again on Sunday. They were to begin an all-out strike on 21 August.
Instead, following last week's strikes, management said they would temporarily withdraw their plans to impose new ways of working and return to talks. The strike, the first at the plant for 20 years, was a result of management's attempts to alter shift patterns, reduce breaks and increase the pace of the assembly track. It is the seventh big change to shifts in 12 years.
The new plans would mean compulsory working on Friday evenings, the 30 minute meal break reduced to 25 minutes, the ten minute drink break reduced to nine minutes and the 40 cars an hour increased to 41. "We've reached breaking point," said a picket at the Ryton assembly plant last week.
"It's already inhuman on the [assembly line] track. They already treat us like human robots. On one shift there's no social life. On the other there's no family life. "If I'm on the early shift I get up at 4.15am to get to work for 6am. At the end of the day I'm completely knackered. The late shift is even worse. I start in the middle of the afternoon and get home at about 3am. I have to tiptoe around, can't have a bath even though I've really been sweating. Then I'm asleep by the time the kids get up. I go to work on a Sunday night and say to my kids that I'll see them again on Saturday morning almost a week later. What sort of bloody life is that? Peugeot want to make it even worse."
At the warehouse picket line a striker said, "We are fed up with deals being imposed on us. Well, now we've shown the bastards." The strike was a brilliant success. It cost the company 6 million in lost production perday.
Several giant trucks bringing parts from France and Spain turned back after travelling hundreds of miles. Peugeot workers are standing up against the flexible labour, speed-ups and bullying which blight millions of workers' lives in Britain. They are giving two fingers to New Labour's notion of partnership, the idea that bosses and workers are on the same side.
This dispute is a sign of the mood beneath the surface appearance of a low level of strikes.
"WHEN I wake up in the morning my knuckles are clenched tight. I have to soak my fists in water to unclench them. Management talks as if repetitive strain injuries don't exist. If you go and complain about a back problem you're told to stretch and get on with it. The robots get maintenance breaks-it's more than they'd like to give to us. The managers look at you and they have pound signs in their eyes. It's profit-that's all they're interested in. This place has taken everything from me."
- PEUGEOT STRIKER
Fury at bosses and officials
STRIKERS WERE not only angry with the company last week. They were also furious at their union leaders. The original deal, recommended by management and the union, was rejected by 86 percent to 14 percent. Then workers voted by 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent for the strikes.
Management and the union leaders panicked. Hurried talks brought minor changes to the offer, which they thought would be enough to get the action stopped. But, for the third time, workers turned over their union officials and rejected the deal. "The union leaders are completely out of touch. None them have any idea what our lives are like," said a TGWU union member at the Ryton picket last week. But there is also great disenchantment with lower levels of union organisation. Only a handful of shop stewards openly backed the strike. The great majority urged workers to accept.
A steward who supports the fight told Socialist Worker, "When I was elected the other stewards told me I was joining the 'dream team'. They have become cut off and distant from the people they are supposed to represent." Some workers threatened to leave the union in outraged reaction to their leaders' betrayals. But on the picket line there was a much more positive response-to reclaim the union for the members.
Petitions calling for the replacement of several senior stewards and other section reps are circulating. Some people who have been active in the strike want to become stewards in order to shift the union to a militant stance. The vote against the deal was built by rank and file members talking to each other and bravely speaking out at gang meetings organised by the bosses to sell the package.
The Financial Times warned its readers last week, "The Peugeot strike appears set to end a period of prolonged industrial relations peace in a UK car industry which was once a byword for militancy. Workforce unrest is also building at Ford's Dagenham plant in east London."
Peugeot is very profitable. Profits rose by 153 percent last year to 455 million. A quarter of that comes from Britain. The Coventry plant, which builds the successful 206 model, is crucial for the company. On the eve of the strike management desperately offered every worker a one-off 100 payment to come in for the next day. But it simply fuelled the anger.
An all-out strike would bring bosses to their knees. Workers must demand there is no deal unless the company completely withdraws its new shift patterns.
Working the track ripping lives apart
TRACK WORKERS face a life of unending, grinding pressure. "If you want to know what the word relentless means, get on the track," says Mike from B Shift. "There are 40 cars an hour, one and a half minutes per car. A typical job might be fixing a brake hose and a heater hose. You're in the car, settling up the alignment, fixing and securing the hoses-90 seconds for the whole process. Then another car and another and another.
In some areas it's worse-you'll be using mechanical screwdrivers and hammers." A woman TGWU member says, "I've been here for 13 years and it's got steadily worse. On the old 405 line we used to do slightly more cars per hour, but we had twice as many workers. We get a ten minute drink break. And ten minutes means ten minutes. The bell goes to stop. You rush off-can you go to the toilet, have a drink and a smoke in ten minutes? After ten minutes the bell goes again and the track starts. You can't be late-not a minute late, not ten seconds late, or you're chasing down the line trying to catch up. This is the break, remember, that they want to cut to even less."
A woman track worker says, "You can't go to the toilet when you want. You have to request it and they can say there's nobody available to cover your work so you'll have to wait. It's really demeaning, and it's worse for women."