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Car pile-up ahead: may cause strikes

By Jeremy Dewar

On 25 October, Ford stunned workers at its Southampton transit van and Dagenham stamping plants, announcing 1,400 job cuts and the closure of both sites next year. Unions say job losses could be as high as 2,000. Closure would threaten a further 10,000 jobs in the supply chain.

The US car giant had promised its Southampton workers just months beforehand that they would be making the new transit van from 2014 onwards. Unite and GMB unions joined in condemning the move, with Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey saying, “Ford has betrayed its workforce.”

The job losses will reduce Ford UK’s workforce to just 11,400, down from 52,000 workers at the turn of the century.

European crisis
This is only the beginning of a jobs massacre. As the euro crisis rumbles on with no end in sight, there is overcapacity across the EU car industry. Put simply, with unemployment soaring and wages plummeting, workers cannot afford new cars.

Even in Germany, a worker on the average income would today have to put aside 16 months’ wages to buy a car, up from nine months back in 1980. Wages and what they can buy are shrinking across the developed world, hitting car sales hard.

In the first half of 2012, most of Europe’s car manufacturers have seen sales fall dramatically: Peugeot by 14 per cent, Renault 17 per cent, General Motors and Ford 11 per cent and Fiat 17 per cent. Volkswagen has offset some of its losses by selling 30 per cent of its cars to China, but even its sales are down 1 per cent.

As a result, production has been cut back, causing thousands of lay-offs, short-time working and closures. On top of the 2,000 jobs here, Ford is shedding 4,300 jobs at Genk in Belgium, Peugeot is slashing 8,000 shifts in Paris and Fiat is looking to close its Naples factory.General Motors – known as Opel in Europe and Vauxhall in the UK – has cut 2,600 jobs in 2012 alone, and is rumoured to be planning to close its factory in Bochum, which would be Germany’s first car plant closure since World War II. Short time working in Germany has cost tens of thousands of car workers 20 days’ wages in 2012.

Strike – occupy – resist
On 31 October, Manganese Bronze, the manufacturers of London’s iconic black cab, sacked all 156 workers at its Coventry plant, less than 24 hours after telling Unite reps that it was hopeful of finding a buyer.

The workers were outraged. But they didn’t wait for the union to act – they occupied the plant, locking management and the suits from PricewaterhouseCoopers outside. Although the occupation ended after promises of talks with the union, this is a taster for the kind of resistance car workers need to mount if they are to stop the jobs massacre.

Despite staring at short-term losses on their balance sheets, the bosses are scared stiff by the prospect of occupations and strikes. That’s why Ford managers sent the shift home early at Southampton when they announced the closure, rather than risk workers barricading themselves in. They don’t want their machinery being held to ransom.

Occupations and strikes also bind the workers together, not allowing bosses to drive a wedge between them. Ford is offering up to two years’ wages – £60,000 – to those with permanent contracts, hoping to buy them off, while sacking temporary workers on the cheap and leaving ten thousand workers in the supply chain in the lurch. So it’s great that former Ford employees from Visteon, who successfully occupied the outsourced suppliers in 2009 to secure their pensions, came down to leaflet the Southampton workers, encouraging them to fight.

Nationalisation and internationalism
All 11,400 Ford workers should be balloted immediately for action – preferably an all-out strike. The Dagenham and Southampton plants should be occupied. As one rep put it, “This is a fight for the community, for the next generation.” Exactly. That’s why an occupation could become a beacon of hope for car parts workers, the unemployed and youth.

Ford workers in Genk have shown the way. They have led several walkouts and have blockaded the factory since 24 October, the day Ford announced its plans. Although they plan to return to work on 13 November, they will continue to prevent finished cars from leaving. Car workers from Southampton, Dagenham and across Europe are attending a solidarity demo in Genk on 11 November. While there, they should draw up a plan for a Europe-wide fight back.

We must not allow the bosses to divide us along national lines. Transit van production is set to be transferred to Turkey in 2013. Let’s contact the militant Turkish unions and secure their solidarity in saving jobs in the UK, while unions here should support Turkish workers’ battle to raise wages to the level of the best in Europe. The only way to prevent the “race to the bottom” is to fight together to raise everyone’s to the top.

Across Europe, the unions should insist that there is a solution to the car crisis: nationalisation without compensation and placing production under workers’ control. Only when production is in the hands of the workers, will we be able to rationalise production and ensure our transport needs are compatible with environmental needs. So let’s use this crisis to take control of the motor industry, secure jobs for future generations and reduce global warming.

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