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Peter Hadden

Action gets results – Visteon occupation

(May 2009)

From The Socialist [Dublin], Issue 44, May 2009.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The workers at Visteon – through their month-long occupation of their factory – have written an important chapter in the history of the labour movement in Northern Ireland. Had they done as was demanded of them and meekly left the factory when administrators arrived to take it over, they would have walked away with their basis state entitlements and nothing more. Here we draw some of the lessons from this important dispute.

Ford/Visteon would have got away with their scheme to close the factory on the cheap by declaring it insolvent and thereby washing their hands of redundancy and pension commitments. This could then have provided a model to be used elsewhere in the Ford group and by employers generally.

Fortunately the Belfast workforce decided to make a stand. They refused to accept the ultimatum from the administrators to vacate the premises and began the occupation. It was the administrators who were forced to leave.

Workers in the other Visteon plants in Basildon and Enfield initially complied with the ultimatum to leave the factories – until the news came through of the Belfast occupation. Encouraged that there could be a fight back. They immediately began occupations of their own. Heavy handed police action plus the use of the courts eventually forced them off the premises but they began round-the-clock picketing to ensure that the machinery stayed where it was.

The decisive action taken by the workers of the three plants forced Ford/Visteon to come up with a significant redundancy package. This is an important victory which can encourage other workers faced with layoffs and closures that resistance is possible.

However the silence in the Visteon canteen when the ballot result accepting the deal was announced spoke volumes about the attitude of the workers to what had been achieved. Most workers saw it as a victory, but only a partial victory.

There was anger that the national negotiating officials had come up with a deal that gave less to the non-Ford-protected “Cost Competitive Rate” (CCR) workers.

Above all there was deep disappointment that the factory was still to close. For most of those who had maintained the occupation this had not been a struggle for better redundancy terms, it was, first and foremost, a fight to keep the plant open. The thought that the factory gates would permanently close and that the machinery would be shipped out tempered the sense of victory and achievement for most workers.

The fact that Ford was not forced to reopen the factory is in no way the fault of those who led and maintained the Belfast occupation. From day one, the leaders of the occupation saw that the key to winning lay, firstly, in consolidating their position in the factory; secondly, in building support in local communities and other workplaces; and, thirdly, in stepping up the pressure on Ford by organising solidarity action in the Ford factories in Bridgend and Dagenham.

The first two tasks were achieved hands down. The occupation was a model of discipline and organisation from the start. Rotas were drawn up from lists of volunteers to make sure that there were enough people inside the plant at all times. Basic tasks from cooking, cleaning, maintaining the site, to manning the gate, were allocated and carried out efficiently. Most importantly, there were regular meetings held at different times each day so that the shop stewards could keep everyone informed and everyone, in turn, could put forward suggestions as to what should be done.

The overwhelming community support was shown in the regular donations of money, food and other essentials and in the stream of people, including trade unionists from other workplaces, visiting the factory to back the occupation. Faced with this support, the administrators thought twice about pressing the courts to implement the repossession order that they served on “the occupiers”. An attempt to physically seize the factory or to use the courts to fine or imprison any of the leaders of the occupation would have resulted in a dramatic escalation that could have had far reaching consquences.

However the third task – to get Ford workers in Bridgend and Dagenham to black the parts brought in to replace those previously supplied by the three Visteon factories proved more difficult. This was mainly because of the role of the national Unite leaders who, from the very start, dragged their heels and refused to lead from the front on this.

What was needed was a clear instruction to Ford workers from Unite General Secretary, Tony Woodley, not to handle the replacement parts. The closure of Visteon could well turn out to be a dress rehearsal for the eventual withdrawal of Ford from Britain. The Unite leaders should have explained to the Ford workforce that the time to fight for their own jobs is now, not down the line when the company has already been pared back to a skeleton and resistance is more difficult.

A clear call from Tony Woodley for the blacking of parts, plus a guarantee that any reprisal by Ford against any workers would be met by strike action throughout the Ford group, would have got a response. For weeks the convenors and shop stewards from the three plants kept up the pressure on the Unite national officials on this. Eventually it did seem that the union was prepared to support picketing by Visteon workers at Bridgend. There was some caution about this because picketing from the outside is no substitute for action organised through the union in the plant. There was also justified concern that the union leaders, who were giving a nod and a wink of approval, would wash their hands of the action should Ford respond with legal threats. in any case on the eve of the picketing – and as workers from Belfast were preparing to travel over – the union pressed them to hold off to allow for negotiations.

These talks did take place – resulting in the deal that was eventually agreed. The question that now remains is that if the occupations and blockades, plus the threat of blacking, forced Ford to move significantly on the redundancy package, how much more might have been achieved had the Unite leadership acted much earlier and much more decisively to implement the blacking?

The redundancy deal, once it goes through, will mean the end of the occupation. There is now no prospect of Ford being forced to reopen any of the Visteon plants. This, however, should not be the end of the matter. Rather than allow these factories to close, they should be taken into public ownership and placed under democratic workers’ management.

If Ford does not provide a market for the parts now produced in these factories, the equipment and the skills should be retained and used to produce other socially useful products. The Unite leaders should be putting pressure on the government to nationalise Visteon and invest in the necessary design, retooling and retraining.

While pressure should be put on Brown, this does not mean that the local politicians should be allowed to duck their responsibility. During the occupation politicians from all the main parties visited the factory offering their support.

Naturally the Visteon workers were grateful for whatever support they received and are keen that the politicians keep on backing them in the ongoing fight to secure their pension rights.

However, not one of the local parties has anything to boast about when it comes to their own record on saving jobs. During the ICTU organised rally for jobs, called to support the occupation, Translink workers stopped the buses in Belfast in a gesture of solidarity. Their battle is not with a private company like Ford; it is with the Assembly politicians who are in the process of axing 75 Translink jobs.

Support for the occupation also came from parents who are occupying their Lewisham school against an attempt by the council to privatise it. A delegation carne over for the Belfast May Day parade and spent the night in the factory. Yet schools around the plant have been privatised in exactly the same way – and other Belfast schools are set to follow – because of decisions taken by the Assembly.

The Assembly parties have rightly joined with the Visteon workers in pointing an accusing finger at Ford. Ford's decision to pull out has now passed the responsibility for keeping the factory open to the Assembly. If, as is now more or less certain, there is no movement by the Brown government to nationalise Visteon, the onus should be put on the Assembly to take the Belfast plant into public ownership so that the facilities and the skills are retained for the benefit of the local community.

The Visteon workers have struck a blow on behalf of workers everywhere. Whatever the final outcome they can walk away from this battle with their heads held high.

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