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Proletarian issue 30 (June 2009)
Industry matters: "Political parties of the workplace"
“Political parties of the workplace”

In their efforts to explain away the rising tide of militancy in Greece and France – with special care taken to explain that phenomena like strikes, occupations and ‘boss-napping’ (the practice of locking up your manager until he agrees to talk) are the exclusive preserve of hot-blooded foreigners, never to be associated with the ‘loyal’ British worker – the paid hacks of capitalism let slip the odd glimmer of truth in spite of themselves.

Thus the Independent was to be heard scratching its head over the magnitude of the revolt in France. According to its calculations, only 9 percent of workers are unionised in France, as against 27 percent in Germany and 29 percent in Britain. The paper’s tentative explanation was that unions are just more political across the Channel, and they are all under pressure to give a lead on the crisis. “French unions are best seen, perhaps, not as trade-based unions on the UK model, but as political parties of the workplace”, the article suggested, ranging from “moderate” to “fiercely anti-capitalist”. (1 February 2009)

From this very interesting observation it would seem reasonable to draw the inference that the best way for British unions to ‘coordinate the fight back’ would be to stop shunning political theory and start seriously examining their relationship with the imperialist Labour party.

Strength in numbers is not to be sneezed at, but is no substitute for political leadership. When the massed subs donated by the pooled membership of amalgamated ‘superunions’ like Unite continue to flow unchecked into the coffers of Labour – the same party which, in government, is superintending the very massacre of jobs against which the union bigwigs are supposed to be leading the ‘fight back’ – then nobody should be surprised if British workers begin to learn a lesson or two from their more “political” brethren the other side of the Channel.

Visteon

With the toll on skilled manufacturing jobs now estimated at 20,000 in the past six months (not to mention the many others lost in financial services and threatened on the railways), capitalism cannot avoid a spirited backlash from some sections of the proletariat most immediately affected.

Most prominent in recent weeks have been the strikes and occupations unfolding at three Visteon plants since the UK wing of the automotive parts firm went into administration on 31 March. These have both demonstrated the potential strength of organised labour in resisting the imposition of slump burdens on workers’ backs and revealed the inadequacy of existing union and ‘left’ leadership to meet the needs of the hour.

It is competition with imperialist rivals that is driving monopoly capitalists to play the kind of games that effective parent company Ford is playing with Visteon, for the fate of whose employees it shrugs off any responsibility. Overcapacity must be slashed before profits can be maximised. Every monopoly capitalist must, where possible, drive his rival to destruction so that the surplus capacity that is annihilated belongs to another. However, a second-best alternative to this happy outcome may be a kind of in-house asset-stripping, where an ‘offspring’ is delegated to take the pain in place of the ‘parent’.

Visteon was spun off from Ford back in 2000, in the first of a sequence of manoeuvres intended to give strategic advantage to Ford in the dog-eat-dog world of mergers and acquisitions. By maintaining the legal fiction of a wholly independent Visteon, Ford pulled market strings without accepting responsibility. In 2005, Visteon in turn bundled up its least profitable operations and hung them out to dry in a US-based holding company, ACH. Two years later, according to Wikipedia, “all ACH operations had been closed, scheduled for closure, merged at least partially, or sold (two back to Ford)”.

By the time the overproduction crisis hit for real, Ford had already spawned a complex network of around 40 companies – semi-‘independent’ companies, outright dummy companies, and non-US subsidiaries – all designed to maximise Ford’s market influence whilst minimising the parent company’s exposure to market risks.

One risk Ford clearly wanted to avoid was having to fork out redundancy payments and honour pension arrangements when the destruction of surplus capacity translated into a massacre of jobs, as is now threatened at the Visteon sites in Belfast, Enfield and Basildon.

Though ultimately owned by Ford, Visteon enjoys the mixed blessing of juridical independence. In turn, Visteon UK is now presented as the problem child of Visteon in the USA. And now the Visteon pension scheme, which till last year applied to all Visteon employees (who were told that the scheme mirrored Ford pension conditions) has itself split in two, with one version for senior management (apparently seaworthy) and another for other ranks (holed below the water line and going down with all hands).

Resistance

Workers at two of the sites, Enfield and Belfast, responded to the loss of their jobs and theft of their pensions by occupying the plants, drawing huge support from their communities in the process.

The continuing spread of resistance from the Visteon dispute is clearly worrying capitalism, judging from the draconian action taken against National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) activist Rob Williams, the Unite convenor at the Linamar car parts factory in Swansea. The Linamar operation was itself spun off from Visteon last July, at which time workers were promised that their contracts and pensions would continue to mirror Ford/Visteon’s. Now the Linamar management have reneged on these commitments and want to shed 140 jobs.

In an attempt to break the strength of local union resistance, Rob Williams was sacked on a trumped-up charge. The response of his fellow workers was magnificent. When managers called in police to evict him from the union office, the day shift downed tools and surrounded the office. This brisk response wrung Williams’ temporary reinstatement from a rattled management, though Linamar has since reneged on the deal and at time of going to press Williams remains sacked.

Such spirited direct action as that around the Visteon struggle suggests that the kind of mass militancy shown in recent French actions, ‘boss-napping’ and all – will not for long be confined to the other side of the Channel.

The National Shop Stewards Network explains in a letter appealing for solidarity, “Unite members in the Swansea plant are balloting for strike action to force management to reinstate Rob. We are appealing to the trade-union movement to contribute to our hardship fund as our members move into struggle.”

Why not begin by diverting all those donations Unite makes to Labour and spend them on something useful instead?


Send messages of protests about Rob Williams’ treatment to linda.hasenfratz@linamar.com
Send messages of support to robbo@redwills.freeserve.co.uk
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