Being shown round the Ford Visteon occupied car parts factory, in Enfield (North London), during the 8 day occupation by the workers, its clear that the workers anger at their bosses, is matched by their pride in their manufacturing work. For over 15 years the factory has been making primarily plastic mouldings for Ford, Jaguar and Land Rover cars and vans dashboards, gearbox casings and the like, often quite intricately assembled as well as cast. But, they could make just about anything out of plastic, given the right moulds. Changing the moulds to allow the workers to cast different products would take as little as half an hour.
Apparently the workers have been suggesting to their bosses for several years that they should diversify into making different products. They saw how the car market was going, and they have the same environmental concerns as everyone else, too. Garden furniture was one suggestion which was put forward maybe not an especially ‘green’ product itself, but a lot greener to have it manufactured in the UK, than made in China and shipped halfway across the world.
Another idea originating from the workers was to make recycling bins. In the surrounding areas they live in, there is currently a shortage of recycling bins (something to do with Germany soaking up all the spare capacity!) so why can’t they make them here, they suggest?
Many of the workers had 20 years or more of manufacturing experience. The factory used to employ 1500 workers now there are only 200 left. It used to make electronic parts like the dials for dashboards some of those workers were still working at Visteon this year and could have easily turned their skills to making parts for the growing
industry of energy monitoring, for example.
They are open to suggestions. Plastic parts for bike trailers, for bus interiors? “Definitely. We don’t work here because we love cars!” one says.
But the bosses had refused to listen to any suggestions that had been put forward by workers over the last few years. Workers said the bosses’ response had been that if they turned to making different products ‘we’d be a laughing stock at the automotive shows’. One worker said when he started he’d been told ‘you’re just a pair of hands’.
The bosses fail to see that in fact these workers had more ideas and vision than the bosses whose only concern seems to be to save their own faces and arses!
It’s reminiscent of the Lucas aerospace company in the 1970s, where management sacked trade unionists for having the temerity to come up with their own ‘alternative corporate plan’ to make ‘socially and environmentally useful products’ like wind turbines, health monitors, and electric vehicles, rather than military aircraft. Nonetheless, the plans, which were developed with the help of supportive technical academics, went into production or prototyping, but Thatcherism killed of many of these initiatives which were ahead of their time. So now, whilst the wind turbine industry supports quarter of a million jobs in Germany, it supports only about 7000 in the UK.
These ideas that workers should be able to take control of what they do – are ideas whose time has come again. Meanwhile the government claims it plans to create hundreds of thousands of ‘green jobs’, but then allows its manufacturing base to crumble away, throwing countless people onto the dole, rather than step in to convert these factories to green production.
Whilst the Enfield Ford Visteon workers hope their union negotiations will bear fruit – and get them (at the very least) the redundancy and pension protection that Ford has tried to cheat them out of – they face an uncertain future without the manufacturing jobs that they depended on for their livelihoods.
It seems like if we want a ‘just transition’ to a greener, fairer society, and green jobs, we’ll have to make it happen ourselves – working together as workers, activists, trade unionists, and academics. Hopefully, the vacuum left by a total absence of effective government action, might be filled by the kind of spirited fightbacks and developing understanding and connections that we’ve seen at the Enfield factory, over the last 8 days.
We all know that over the coming months capitalism will continue to reveal its true, brutal face. As one of the organisers said today, thanking all those assembled for their support: “This is a beginning, not an end”.
Messages of solidarity to: firstname.lastname@example.org
More info: www.visteonoccupation.org
9.4.2009. This report from the Sustainable Haringey communications group was circulated by the climate change trade union network.