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Occupy and Defy: the Visteon workers’ struggle & their union

Over the spring, hundreds of workers at three car parts manufacturing plants across the UK were made redundant. In response, workers occupied the plants and, in doing so, demonstrated that any protection we might have from the ravages of this recession will come not from the generosity of employers, politicians or trade union bosses but from the action we take as rank and file workers.

In June 2000, Ford Motor Company outsourced production of some of its car parts to Visteon, an apparently independent company, but in reality one in which Ford retained a 60% holding. The relatively smooth changeover was negotiated on the promise that the ex-Ford – now Visteon – workers would remain on Ford terms and conditions, including pensions and redundancy packages.

Flash forward almost nine years to March 31st 2009 and Visteon an-nounce the closure of factories in Belfast, Basildon (Essex) and Enfield (north London), sacking 610 workers with only minutes’ notice. The company declared insolvency and was put in receivership with no word about where pensions and redundancy payments would come from. Workers who’d been employ-ed for 20, 30 and even 40 years were not only out of a job, but were told they would get nothing.

The Belfast workers acted the same day, immediately occupying their factory with hundreds of local supporters soon arriving at the factory gates. When news travelled the next day, the Basildon and Enfield workers followed suit. Though the Basildon occupation was extremely brief, the Enfield occupation lasted nine days while the Belfast workers held on for over a month.

Using dubious legal advice, Unite! encouraged Enfield workers to drop their occupation to allow the union to begin negotiations. Talks took place in New York City on April 8th, and it was announced that an improved deal was to be offered. However, details of the deal were not passed on to the workers themselves. Realising they could not just hand the plant back and hope for the best, the Visteon workers began holding 24 hour pickets outside the factory to make sure their employers would not attempt to move any of the machinery.

This proved a sensible move. When the results of the negotiations finally came through, the workers were less than happy. After decades of service for Ford and then Visteon, workers were offered a miserly cash payment equivalent to 16 weeks’ pay. The workers rejected the insulting offer and continued their dispute, with Enfield workers barricading the main gate with heavy car parts containers.

Eventually, the workers’ resolve forced Ford to cave in and come to the table, a table they had initially claimed had nothing to do with them. After workers agreed to call off a 30-strong picket at Ford’s Bridgend plant in Wales, Ford managed to put together a new, much improved deal, which the workers voted to accept.

good old-fashioned trade unionism…

As the dispute wore on, the Visteon workers’ disillusionment with the union intensified as it became increasingly obvious that the Unite! bureaucracy wanted a speedy end to the dispute. In Enfield, it took three weeks for financial support to reach the workers and most supplies were funded from the pockets of supporters or workers’ families, not from Unite!, let alone the wealthy union leaders. Funds for the Enfield workers were donated first through the bank account of Haringey Solidari-ty Group, a local libertarian community organising group, and then through an independent account. This was due to Unite!’s inaction in raising funds for the struggle at Enfield, which was also followed by complaints that the few donations that did go through the union’s bureaucratic channels were taking too long in getting to the pickets.

Unite! also failed to mention the strike on their website or make any effort to rally its membership’s support for the dispute. When compared with the efforts it made to mobilise members for the subdued and non-confrontational “Put People First” demonstration, the union’s priorities seem glaringly obvious: lobbying and harmless “A-to-B” demonstrations take precedence over workers taking direct action for their livelihoods.

This unwillingness to support the strike also manifested itself through the culture of secrecy which Unite! maintained around the details of any negotiations. For instance, after the negotiations in New York City, the union announced that a deal had been negotiated and that the occupation in Enfield should end by noon the next day. No details of the deal would be released until the following Tuesday 14th, however, and this then turned out to be the insulting 16 weeks pay offer.

Similarly, with the final deal, the union did not give people a printed document of the settlement nor time enough to consider the deal and discuss what it meant for different groups of workers. The result was that some sections of the workforce got a significantly worse deal than others. Rushing through acceptance was deliberate on the union’s part, as was the arrangement whereby the more militant Belfast workers voted on whether to accept after their counterparts in Enfield and Basil-don. Many in Belfast felt they should have been allowed more time to read the deal first; many more voted against the deal than in Enfield or Basildon and it would have been a lot more had the two factories not already accepted. On both counts, the actions of the union were not with the intention of securing the best deal for its members, but of ending the dispute quickly.

However, these issues aren’t a problem of “poor leadership” or of the union not doing its job properly, but one of the union doing its job too well. Official unions are supposed to mediate between workers and bosses and our highly paid union leaders do not share our interests. It’s only a short jump from the top of the trade union ladder to a political think tank or cushy ministerial position. Not to mention that all trade unions are bound by the limits of anti-worker laws and grievance procedures meaning they have to distance themselves from any militant action by their members. Ultimately, there comes a point in all struggles where we find ourselves fighting our union in order to effectively fight our employer.

not the way we usually do things…

The only way to resolve this problem is for the rank and file to take direct control of their struggles and trust in the power of collective direct action. In Belfast, their militancy meant employers had to re-linquish control of the plant for the entirety of the dispute while at-tempting to attack the less militant workers in Enfield and Basildon.

It’s important to understand that the deal which the workers secured was won by the strength of their actions alone and despite, not because of, their union’s intervention. The struggle at Visteon showed us that we get nothing without fighting for it and that in fighting we can improve and protect our conditions. Furthermore, their struggle showed us, yet again, that when we fight back effectively it poses not only a threat to our employers but also to those who would claim to represent us.

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