Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Birmingham galvanised opposition to Blair's pro-market policies
'Workforce Joy As Rover Bid Defies Pessimists'. That was the headline in the Financial Times on the day that the Phoenix consortium signed the deal to take over Rover at Longbridge. Photos of cheering Rover workers adorned every national newspaper on 10 May. Only a fool would have wanted the Phoenix deal to fail. The alternative bidder, Alchemy, would have closed Longbridge eventually. But behind the celebrations at the factory gate the mood of the majority of the workforce was more sombre. Many realised that their future was far from rosy--3,000 jobs are likely to be lost at Longbridge, and a further 2,000 jobs could go at Rover's Cowley plant in Oxfordshire.
Only a month before, the magnificent 100,000-strong demonstration in Birmingham galvanised opposition to Blair's pro-market policies. Labour's trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers's job was put on the line. Byers is one of New Labour's most aggressive pro-business figures. He was part of the Blairite team which junked the Labour Party's commitment to public ownership in 1995, replacing it with a clause embracing the 'enterprise of the market' and the 'rigour of competition'.
The demonstration was the biggest seen so far under a New Labour government. It showed that there was a massive mood to stop the closure of Rover. But the union leaders squandered it--they refused to criticise the government. Instead, they put all their hopes in the Phoenix deal. They played down any idea of striking or occupying to save Rover. Sir Ken Jackson, the leader of the engineers' AEEU union, called for a boycott of BMW. It was a ridiculous idea--how many working class people can afford a brand new BMW?
The more cowardly the union leaders were in the face of the jobs massacre, the more confident the car bosses became. They just rammed through even greater cuts. The BMW decision was quickly followed by Ford's announcement that it was going to stop car production at its east London plant in Dagenham. That in turn was followed by an announcement by Nissan that it was considering shedding 2,000 jobs at its plant in Sunderland. This do-nothing strategy created tension inside the union bureaucracy. Splits began to emerge. In early May, when the closure of Ford Dagenham was leaked in the press, Tony Woodley, the TGWU official responsible for the car industry, threatened that the union would have no choice but to call industrial action if car production ended at Dagenham.
At Longbridge, the organisation most likely to call any action was the works committee. It is made up of full time union stewards from the various unions at the plant. Over the past 20 years they have held the union organisation together under very difficult circumstances. The Longbridge works committee has also given financial support to numerous strikes and taken progressive positions on issues like Ireland, Nicaragua and South Africa. But the defeats of the 1980s also took their toll. The works committee became more cut off from the rank and file members, and gradually it began to lack confidence in the ability of its members to fight. Decisions were carried out behind closed doors and not in front of the members. More and more it put its hopes in a Labour government to bring about change.
Rank and file imagination
Sadly, it threw its weight wholeheartedly behind the Phoenix deal. The union leaders and the works committee clamped down on any talk of strike action or occupations to save Longbridge. They even opposed members' meetings on the grounds that they might lead to a strike. When rank and file car workers demanded a mass meeting to discuss occupying to keep Longbridge open, the works committee told the workers that they needed 500 signatures. Over 500 signatures were dutifully collected. The works committee then said 800 were needed. When these were collected they still refused to call a mass meeting! The works committee had now found itself to the right of its members.
However, it would be wrong to see the crisis of Longbridge as just simply a case of an angry workforce held back by rotten union leaders and an unconfident works committee. At any one time there was only a minority of the Longbridge workforce that was prepared to fight. At certain points, especially after the demonstration, that minority was very large. The majority of workers liked the idea of a fight to save their jobs but lacked the confidence to act. The works committee needed to give a lead. They needed to conduct an argument on the shop floor about why they should strike and occupy. If this had been done the majority of the workforce could have been won over--sadly, that never happened.
Sections of rank and file workers showed amazing imagination in the fight for their jobs. On at least one occasion a section attempted to walk out but was blocked by union officials. On another occasion, two Rover workers were invited to speak at a fringe meeting of the National Union of Teachers conference. Neither worker thought their car would make the journey to Harrogate. One of them went to his local Rover car dealer--the only identity he had was his Rover jacket. He explained his predicament to the car dealer. Ten minutes later he drove away in a top of the range Rover car worth over £40,000! The Rover worker said, 'It was incredible to drive away in a car that I have made all my life but never had the money to buy.' The next day he made a blistering speech at the NUT conference. Unfortunately the spirit of the rank and file was not matched by the union leaders.
The Guardian (8 May) highlighted the weakness of the strategy of relying on the Phoenix deal to save jobs: 'Privately, Phoenix insiders say the atmosphere of crisis surrounding Longbridge, and relief among the unions over its survival, should enable new management to push through changes and job cuts which would not have been possible under normal circumstances.'
The Guardian report is already being borne out. Phoenix boss John Towers recently told a Radio 4 reporter, 'In all probability the workforce will have to increase their output, and some cuts in pay may have to be asked for to ensure the long term future of the plant.'
Even more worryingly for the workers, many industry analysts suggest that the Phoenix deal may only be a stay of execution. As one Rover worker told Socialist Review, 'We've won a reprieve. But we've seen this all before. Longbridge has been taken over before. Each new buyer has forced the workforce to jump through hoops. Sooner, rather than later, Phoenix is going to want us to accept pay cuts and speed-ups. We will have to fight them all the way.' The Birmingham demonstration terrified BMW and played a major part in forcing the multinational company to change tactics and to partially back off. That in itself goes to show just how vulnerable the multinational car companies are.
Over the next few months jobs at Dagenham and Nissan will come under the axe. There is no Phoenix deal waiting in the wings for them. That means there is more of a chance of a fightback. Just like at Rover, there are problems at Dagenham--the PTA (Paint, Trim and Assembly) convenor has stood down and is leaving the plant. This has led to some confusion and disorientation. But the stewards are regrouping. They have formed a campaign committee across the plant to fight the closure. At a minimum they want a march like the Rover workers organised, and many want to see strike action that could shut down Ford Europe. They understand that they have immense power--a strike at the engine plant in Dagenham would bring production across Europe to a halt in just eight hours.
The stewards at Dagenham have a strong tradition of standing up to their union officials. When Woodley addressed a meeting at Dagenham last month he was shouted down. When he made a similar speech at a Longbridge stewards' meeting he was able to speak uninterrupted for an hour and a half!
No one can predict whether or not there will be a fight to save jobs in the car industry, but one thing is clear. New Labour's troubles are not going to go away. Not a week goes by without a major manufacturing company declaring that it is going to close down or lay off thousands of workers. Byers seems to have learnt nothing from the Rover crisis. He continues to argue that the system can't be bucked and there is nothing the government can do about the job losses. New Labour's failure to act will only deepen working class people's deep sense of betrayal with 'their government'.
So much more could have been won at Rover, but the fact that Longbridge will remain open gives confidence to other car workers fighting to save their jobs.Strike sparks a fightback