Issue 205 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Driven by profits

Ralph Darlington

Anger has greeted Ford's claim that job losses are needed because of the company's decline in market share. Halewood has lost out mainly because it is a smaller plant than factories on the Continent and has received considerably less investment in its assembly lines, making it less productive. While the company has mooted the possibility of Halewood being allowed to build an unspecified new 'people carrier' model after 2000 (although only if the plant was to receive government aid and the workforce was prepared to accept 'competitive levels of performance'), unions fear Ford's real intention is to gradually run down the plant and close all manufacturing operations losing over 4,000 jobs. As Tony Woodley, national organiser of the TGWU, said, Ford has effectively handed out 'a suspended death sentence' to the plant.

Ironically, less than 18 months ago the Halewood plant was declared an outstanding example of efficiency when it was awarded Ford's Q1 Quality Award, the company's top honour. The award was meant to be the factory's saviour. In the words of Ford of Britain chairman Ian McAllister, 'It was achieved by nothing short of a revolution.' At the award ceremony, Ford's worldwide vice-president, Dale McKeehan, told Halewood workers: 'The fact that you have achieved such a level of quality must help to secure the future for the plant and the local community.'

The 1,300 redundancies, never mind plant closure, would be a devastating blow to Merseyside. As many as one in three people are out of work in Speke, the adjacent large council estate where many of the Halewood workers live. Since 1979 Liverpool has lost 60 percent of its manufacturing base, and over the last 25 years has lost a third of its population.

When he heard of the job cuts, Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor, had the gall to comment, 'You can't win them all.' In fact it is arguable that the government's support for a flexible labour market has made it both easier and cheaper for Ford to sack workers in Britain compared with elsewhere in Europe. The anticipated ballot for national strike action reflects fears that further cuts are planned at other UK plants as Ford pushes ahead with rigorous plans to wipe out European profit losses. More jobs could be lost at Dagenham, the main production centre for the Fiesta, and there is concern that the Transit van plant at Southampton could also be at risk.

The threat to jobs throws in relief the enormous competitive pressures in the car industry. Between 1945 and the mid-1970s there was a constant expansion of car production in Europe, the US and Japan. Since then, and especially since the recession of 1979, competition has sharpened in a narrowing and increasingly uncertain world market. In Britain this has been accentuated by the setting up of new plants by Japanese car companies Nissan, Toyota and Honda. The intense competition between the major companies has forced each to look for ways of producing cars more cheaply than their rivals. The most obvious method has been to lower labour costs. Thus Ford has responded by introducing new technology, slashing its UK workforce from 70,000 in 1972 to about 25,000 today, and intenstifying workers' productivity with speed-ups, multi-skilling and flexible team working.

The problems in the car industry are not restricted to one plant or even one company. They run from top to bottom across Europe, with a huge surplus of capacity as the rival car companies ratchet up productivity. In every country workers are told to 'compete or die'. This is nothing more than a recipe for workers cutting their own throats, as the record at Ford Halewood shows.

Ford went to Halewood in the 1960s in response to government offers of aid to invest in the area, against the backcloth of a large reservoir of unemployed labour. At its height, in the late 1970s, the factory employed 14,500 workers. Recent media reports have blamed the latest job cuts on the plant's strikebound image. In fact, it was the extremely aggressive managerial strategy during the 1960s and 1970s which precipitated the frequent sectional and plant wide stoppages of work that occurred. As an employee relations manager at Halewood acknowledged:

'It was macho-style management in the 1970s. The view was that shop stewards were gobshites. Shop stewards were not to be consulted. Management had the right to manage and you were a wimp if you made any conciliatory gesture to the trade unions. Junior levels of management and supervisors took the view that the only thing people responded to was the big stick.'

It was only through militant workers' resistance to such managerial instransigence that a relatively powerful plant wide collective stewards' organisation was built at Halewood. But from the early 1980s there was the beginning of a dramatic change inside the plant. The installation of new robotic technology had already led to a voluntary redundancy programme with the loss of 3,000 jobs. Now a deep commercial crisis in the car industry, with chronic overcapacity on a world scale, was compounded by Japanese efficiency levels outstripping Ford's. Throughout 1983-84 Halewood management provided stewards with a number of presentations using a torrent of statistics to illustrate the alleged low level of labour productivity and 'appalling' labour relations in the factory compared with Ford's continental plants. They pressed home the message that the Halewood plant would be closed unless there was a radical reform of working practices, increased flexibility and an end to strikes. The avalanche of redundancies and factory closures taking place on Merseyside at the time, combined with the Tory government's anti-union legislation and the retreat of the union movement also reinforced 'new realism' on the shopfloor.

The Halewood stewards came to believe they had to acquiesce to management demands for change in the hope of increasing the likelihood of plant survival. Under tremendous pressure from full time TGWU officials the stewards agreed on the need to transform Halewood's strikebound image by becoming more competitive and efficient. As one steward commented, 'We realised that stewards had to play a different role. The phrase became, "It's jaw-jaw, not war-war".' As a result, over the next few years management was able to massively cut back the size of the labour force (through voluntary redundancies), reduce job demarcation and introduce much more flexible working practices, with a substantial increase in labour productivity. Senior stewards played a crucial role in intervening to dampen down virtually all sectional stoppages that flared up, with strike levels plummeting from 310 in 1976, to 52 in 1981, to 31 in 1984 and 12 in 1987.

Not surprisingly, the senior stewards' accommodative relationship with management gradually had the effect of undermining the vitality and strength of union organisation in the plant. But it was not entirely a one way street. One factor ensuring the stewards' organisation retained a spirit of resistance was the continuing antagonistic relationship which lay behind the veneer of managerial cooperation. And shop floor belligerency was vividly displayed during the three week 1988 national Ford pay strike, when Halewood voted 87 percent in favour of strike action and initiated unofficial walkouts. The fall in the level of unemployment (and the temporary end to the recruitment freeze at Halewood) increased workers' leverage, whilst booming company profits encouraged them to fight for a better deal.

Nonetheless, the senior stewards' acquiescence towards management has continued to be a pervasive feature of developments inside Halewood during the early 1990s. Senior stewards even went so far as to produce a joint union/management video and leaflet pressing home the need to join together to beat the competition:

'We should all realise that we have to do the best we can in our work, our quality and our performance, as these things provide us with the most protection and help the company to sell more cars. We at Halewood are all in the same boat. We all need to pull together.'

Whilst many workers and some sectional shop stewards have bitterly resented the impact of management's flexibility offensive, they have rarely had the confidence to take matters into their own hands. Nonetheless, the depth of cooperation has continued to have some important limits, as was demonstrated when 1,400 body plant workers walked out on a one day unofficial protest strike in late 1992, after Ford threatened to impose compulsory redundancies if not enough volunteers came forward. Senior stewards were pushed into supporting the action, and TGWU and AEEU national officials even warned of a national strike ballot until Ford withdrew its threat.

Moreover, as soon as last month's news of Ford's latest round of job cuts was announced shop floor bitterness exploded with sporadic unofficial stoppages across the plant. At the mass meeting called to discuss the union response tempers ran extremely high, with the assembly plant convenor most identified with the union's acquiescence strategy shouted down by shop floor workers with claims of betrayal. As one line worker explained:

'They've been telling us for years now that we'll only survive if we're more efficient, accept changes in working practices and become competitive. But look where it's got us with the threat of even more lost jobs and closure. Well, we can't do any more. The workforce is cut to the bone already.'

Halewood workers held a militant lobby of the Ford national joint negotiating committee meeting in London to press home their message that now is the time to start the fightback. Many workers have undoubtedly been inspired by the fighting spirit of resistance shown by the Liverpool dockers.

In an attempt to reflect the shop floor anger, national union officials were expected to organise ballots for strike action across all Ford's UK plants to prevent any compulsory redundancies at Halewood. Tony Woodley said:

'It is not the time to talk about small scale industrial action or overtime bans. This is about the whole future of Ford in Britain. If they can do this to the factory that produces Escorts for the biggest market in Europe, then nobody's job is safe.'

An all out national strike could successfully force Ford to reverse its jobs assault. Certainly, Ford's European just-in-time integrated production system leaves it very vulnerable to strike action, as was shown recently when workers at Ford's Bridgend plant struck and stopped production at some continental plants within a few days. The last national pay dispute in Britain also spectacularly shut Ford Europe within a matter of days.

However, the danger is that the national union officials will drag their feet over defending Halewood. It will require a determined campaign of mass meetings addressed by leading officials to win support for strike action across Ford's plants, to ensure that Halewood is not left isolated. No doubt the officials would like to avoid any calls for blacking and mass pickets that will be necessary to make a strike effective. In addition, there could be an attempt to stitch a compromise deal which would trade acceptance of the 1,300 redundancies, single shift working and a further package of new working practices at Halewood, in return for some vague pledge by Ford to keep the plant open in the future. Activists and militants at Halewood and elsewhere will have to argue hard for the shop stewards to push the national officials to stand firm, whilst taking the initiative to organise the fightback themselves from below.


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