Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
The car industry is in crisis but what are the leaders of the big unions up to asks The Walrus
As anyone familiar with the dynamic of a serious fightback over an issue like job losses or victimisation would know, the momentum developed for the struggle is absolutely crucial. Unless workers' initial anger is channelled early and in the right kind of direction, it can all too easily drain away into bitter disappointment--very often due to utter frustration at the stupefying incompetence of union leaders.The way the vote over job cuts at Ford turned out just before Xmas is an apt and entirely needless example of the folly of dallying and dithering about. Over Vauxhall, the response from car industry union leaders has needed to be a bit quicker off the mark, lest aptitude for tactical blundering be misunderstood for sheer impotence. A large part of the membership of big unions like the TGWU, AEEU and MSF relies on the car industry for a living-- these workers simply can't afford to become regarded as a completely soft touch (the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, for example, estimates that some 790,000 jobs in UK manufacturing, wholesale and the retail trades are dependent upon the motor industry).
On the other hand, most of the noises that have been coming from Bill Morris, Sir Ken Jackson and Roger Lyons so far hardly inspire much confidence. The three of them seem ready to travel just about anywhere in the globe to meet up with the bosses at General Motors (GM). But you never seem to hear about them going to do mass meetings at any of the plants affected and committing the union to all-out support.
The only glimpses of official union thinking most of the ordinary membership are likely to come across will be when one of this pretty mediocre trio emerges in the national press astride whatever happens to be their latest hobby horse. In the case of Roger Lyons it will probably be that UK manufacturing is suffering because interest rates are too high. Sir Ken will go on about the need to get into Europe as soon as possible, and Bill Morris will remind us once again that there is not much the unions can do in Britain when everything has been so unfairly stacked against us.
In fact these arguments are mostly a complete and utter distraction. The real problem in recent months at Rover, then Ford, and now Vauxhall is that an underlying overcapacity in the world car market is beginning to show its downside, even though the last two years have been among the most successful ever in the history of the industry.
The way bosses of the 'Big Three' in the US (GM, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler) see it there is currently about a 20 percent overcapacity in the world car market, and so the next logical step is to sack roughly 20 percent of the worforce--with levels of UK interest rates or the pound/euro exchange rate barely coming into the equation.
What they don't mention is that, even in the US, car sales reached a record level of 17.3 million units last year, and even though this figure is expected to fall slightly this year (to 16.5 million), it would still be the third best figure on record. Similarly, UK sales reached 2.2 million last year, also the third highest figure ever.
Nor is it the case that all these cars must have been imported, as we are often led to believe. In December of last year the list of top-selling cars in the UK was headed by the Ford Focus (built in Germany) but the next three places were taken by the Astra (made by GM/Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port), the Fiesta (made by Ford at Dagenham) and the Vectra (built by GM/Vauxhall at Luton).
By contrast, none of the cars built by Nissan at its Sunderland factory (the Almera, Primera and Micra) feature at all in the top ten list of UK car sales. The simple explanation for this is that 90 percent of what they make is exported to Europe and always has been. When the Nissan boss, Carlos 'Le Cost Killer' Ghosn, gets out the onion and starts sounding off about exchange rates in Europe, and Sir Ken Jackson emits a similar bleat soon after, the words 'organ grinder' and 'monkey ' immediately spring to mind. Sunderland is the most productive plant in the western world, with an output of 105 cars a year for every worker employed. Much the same goes for recent claims from the management of Peugeot at Ryton that they might not be able to build a new paint shop unless there is greater exchange rate stability. They recently needed to introduce extra shifts to keep up with demand for their 206 model.
What really matters for car industry bosses is not just that they can make enough cars and then sell them--they want to see their market share increasing. Exactly how this can be done in what we are told is a post-Fordist era has become increasingly difficult, especially when more and more cars are being produced in more and more countries. At precisely the same time as Ford and Vauxhall are telling us they can't possibly carry on at Dagenham and Luton, output of a new 'baby' Jaguar is just about to come onstream at Ford Halewood and production of the Land Rover (also owned by Ford) is about to increase at Solihull. A major new investment at Ellesmere Port is also reported to be imminent.
Not all that long ago the management at Ford used to tell us that the workforce at Halewood was such a liability that closure would be inevitable, while Dagenham could do no wrong. But their plans to simply trash the neighbourhood and then move on were resisted and, as a result, what used to be the Ford Escort line at Halewood is expected to be churning out 200,000 of the new baby Jags every year by the year after next. A similar tale could be told about the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port over the years, as the TGWU's chief organiser for the car industry, Tony Woodley, should know--he was convenor at the factory for many years.
Instead of waffling on about exchange rate policy and the like it would be much more convincing if the three key men in this particular boat--Jackson, Morris and Lyons--were to wield some genuine authority and simply tell the management that Vauxhall's entire UK operations will be brought to a standstill unless the Luton closure plan is rescinded. Only too well aware of the company's ability to play one plant off against the other, workers at Vauxhall Ellesmere Port have already expressed their outrage at the company's plans for Luton. It would be nice, for once, if the highest paid union bosses in the land could grasp the same elementary concept so readily.
Unless workers' anger is channelled early, it can all too easily drain away