The announced closure next summer of the Ford Transit van factory in Southampton with the loss of up to 1,500 jobs, plus the closure of part of Fords Dagenham site at the same time, is but the latest convulsion in the global overproduction crisis, a crisis that is nowhere more obvious at present than in the automotive industry. With the world car market saturated and many European production lines running at only 70% of full capacity, competition between rival producers is acute. In their desperation to carve out market share, manufacturers seek to undercut rivals in a frantic price-cutting war which it is anticipated will cost each of the major European manufacturers several hundred million euros in lost profits this year.
Desperate to claw back these losses and hang on to market share, the capitalist can see only one way through: slash labour costs. The same overproduction crisis that drives down the price of cars thus also drives down the price of the labour power sold by the worker. Increasingly the worker is told by the capital: work longer, for less pay, with less pension and degraded working conditions, then just maybe your factory can stay open and your job be saved (for now).
Shamefully, rather than striving to unite the working class behind the common struggle to defeat capitalism and spurning the notion that workers should be made to pay for a crisis for which they are not responsible, the trade unions routinely content themselves with doing sectional deals over redundancies, wages and conditions in the hope of preserving jobs in one place – at the inevitable expense of jobs somewhere else. Such deals, done in the name of “pragmatism”, perfectly complement the divide and rule strategy of the capitalist. It is true that sometimes such deals may temporarily contrive to hang on to some jobs for some of the time, as for example in GM’s Ellesmere Port plant last spring, where Unite sold its members a two year pay freeze as the price for winning a fat order and “saving” the plant. But this stay of execution for Ellesmere Port jobs, hailed by Unite “militant” Len McCluskey as “extremely good news”, comes at a cost. Workers everywhere will see the downward pressure on wages and conditions intensify with each new such “pragmatic” sacrifice. As David Bailey, Professor of International Business Strategy and Economics at the University of Coventry, told Channel 4 News at the time, GM had played a game of “divide and rule”. “It’s classic for them: you announce you’re going to cut capacity, you don’t say where – and then all parties compete in a race to be the chosen plant.”
Of course, for the Labour party such cosy class-collaboration is right up their street. Back in May Miliband’s shadow industry minister Chuka Umunna kibbutzed on UCATT’s annual conference to cheer on Unite’s performance at Ellesmere Port, urging this as a template for other unions to follow. Vacuously warning that “the voice of protest is important” but “the voice of progress must be heard as loudly too”, he extolled the virtues of union members as “wealth creators for this country”, telling delegates that “We must be shouting your success from the rooftops in helping business to succeed, in helping people to get on, to meet their aspirations. Like GM’s recent announcement that it will build a new generation of Astra cars at Ellesmere Port – I went on television to say this was a shining example of trade unions as a force for economic progress for our country, working in partnership with management and the government.”
The craven message from Labour to workers could not be clearer: sell yourself cheaper, create more wealth for the capitalist, and pray that the capitalist will thank you for saving his skin by letting you keep your job – for now. And what keeps the Labour party living in the style to which it has become accustomed? Why, the subs deducted from millions of union members. Not only are these hapless “wealth creating” wage slaves expected to act as selfless saviours of capitalism, they are also expected to go on funding the same social democratic racket that has more than any other ideological instrument protected capitalist power.
Umunna rubbed the point home himself when he thanked UCATT delegates for giving him his tawdry career: “let me say thank you to each and every one of you for the support this union gave me in the lead up to the 2010 General Election – I would not be standing here as a Member of Parliament, let alone the Shadow Business Secretary, without yours and others’ help.”
Let the working class remedy this shameful situation without delay, breaking the union link with Labour and forging unions which will stop the class retreat preached by the likes of Umunna. Let Ford workers raise the demand that the plants in Southampton and Dagenham be taken into public ownership if Ford cannot run them successfully, and let that demand be taken up on a class-wide basis.
…and in Belgium
The overproduction crisis which is driving the capitalist class offensive is international, and requires a no less international counter-offensive by the working class. A day or two before news of Ford’s UK job cuts broke, a much larger massacre of jobs was announced at Ford’s Genk plant in Belgium. Workers frustrated by do-nothing social democratic union leadership in Britain could learn from the example being set by some militants over there.
In a statement on 24 October, the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) explained that “4300 jobs at Ford will be eliminated, while another 6000 jobs will disappear indirectly. The municipality of Genk is located in the Belgian province of Limburg, in the midst of a region that was already devastated with the closure of the coalmines some twenty years ago.
“At the beginning of 2010, Opel announced the end of its production in its Antwerp plant, resulting in the loss of 2600 jobs. Four months ago, there was the closure of the PSA (Peugeot-Citroën) factory in Aulnay, France, and the elimination of 8000 jobs. Everywhere, the difficult situation of the European automobile industry is invoked as the reason: too many plants for too small a demand and too high losses.
“But the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) demands: ‘Why do the workers have to pay for this overcapacity? They are not responsible for this crisis. They are not responsible for the anarchy of capitalist production, based on the search for profit for the few rather than on the satisfaction of the people’s needs.’
“For the Limburg chairman of the PTB, Stany Nimmegeers, the situation is clear: ‘For years on end now, the workers have made sacrifices of all sorts, supposedly in order to assure the plant’s future. In the latest collective bargaining agreement of 2010, they even lost 12% of their salary. It has been 50 years now that the workers of Genk have produced cars of a very high quality, resulting in enormous profits for the shareholders. In 2011, Ford realized a record worldwide profit of 8 billion euro. Just like PSA and Opel, Ford wants to make the workers bear the brunt of the crisis. With as a consequence the further decrease in their purchasing power and thus less consumption, leading to even more overcapacity in the long run… In 50 years’ time, Ford has received such an amount of State subsidies, paid with the Belgian taxpayers’ money, and Ford has made such an amount of profit with the sweat of the Limburg workers, that this plant in fact belongs to the workers. The public authorities need to seize the plant.’”
Such an approach clearly strikes a chord with the working class in Genk, where the party obtained 8.6% of the vote in recent municipal elections, returning three communist councillors.
The party has declared its support for the unions’ fight, beginning with a 24 hour strike in Genk, the only Ford plant in Limburg that is still operational.