Visteon workers who occupied or picketed their plants when they were sacked without notice on 31 March have won an important victory.
Many of the workers at the three plants in Basildon, Belfast and Enfield had been on Ford mirror contracts, since the company was spun off from Ford in 2000, but when Visteon UK went into receivership the company claimed it did not need to honour the contracts, even though the international company is still solvent.
Ford also tried to wash their hands of the affair, although the fortunes of Visteon remain heavily tied to those of Ford — and vice versa. Yet, in a series of hasty negotiations at the end of April, conducted with Visteon and Ford, the Visteon workers’ union Unite managed to get an offer that the workers have accepted.
While accepting the deal, the workers pledged not to leave the plants until the money was in their bank accounts. At Enfield and Basildon, 24-hour pickets continue. At Enfield workers have been told (with the agreement of the union) that they must agree to a date and will be paid on the day they stop the picket. Belfast, which is still in occupation, has a crucial decision to make: whether to leave the plant without the money being paid, as they are now legally obliged to do. Indeed, the latest news is that Visteon have said they cannot have their money until they leave the plant.
The catalyst for the latest serious negotiations — whereas a previous round of talks with Visteon had resulted only in an insulting offer of 13 weeks’ pay — seems to have been the threat by Unite to take Visteon workers to talk to workers at Ford’s new plant in Bridgend.
On international workers’ day, 1 May, workers at Basildon and Enfield voted overwhelmingly to accept the new offer, and workers at Belfast also accepted the offer on Sunday 3 May.
The offer give all workers 52 weeks redundancy pay, plus 12 weeks pay in lieu of notice, and former Ford workers one week’s pay for every year under age 40, and 1.5 week’s pay for every year over age 41. For workers who were taken on by Visteon after 2000 and those recruited on the still worse Cash Competitive Rate the offer is less generous but it is still a lot more than the workers stood to get when they were sacked on 31 March and told to come back the next day to clear their lockers. It amounts to what would be, in the normal run of things, a good redundancy package.
However, there is no deal on pensions: Ford contract workers qualify for their pensions when they are 58 but Visteon workers will have to wait until they are 65 and they will only received about 90% of what they should have got. We understand Unite will take a legal case on this issue.
At this stage, an overall assessment of the Visteon dispute must be: they fought and won! They are an inspiring example to the whole trade union movement.
However, the experience of the Visteon workers has many important lessons for socialists and trade unionists. In the first place, it shows the importance of building rank and file organisation to a much higher level than exists today. The Unite bureaucracy, even at the regional level, has been criticised for its conduct of the dispute. At the very least we can say that they were slow to respond and did not give the full support to the workers that they could have. They organised visits to Ford plants, and launched a financial appeal within Unite itself, only very late on.
I don’t share the view of some Visteon workers’ supporters that Unite were actually working with Ford and Visteon against the workers, but the gap between the bureaucratic culture that we have and the rank and file culture that we need to build has been exposed.
From my observation of the situation at Enfield, there was not enough debate among the workers themselves about how to conduct the dispute, and not enough information about negotiations reaching rank and file union members. A video on YouTube of Kevin Nolan, the Enfield convenor, announcing the results of the final negotiations, gives a sense of “them and us” between even lay officials and ordinary members, even as the workers are cheering each announcement.
I understand that a democratic vote had been taken when Enfield workers, on the advice of the union, made the crucial decision to leave their occupation; and, as the dispute went on, the union did start putting up a daily bulletin for all to read — but they did this on the suggestion of “outsiders” from the support group. Basildon and Belfast might have had better participation of rank and file members in decision making, but there is still clearly much work to do to spread the idea that everyone has a say, that all tactics should be discussed, that disputes need to be run by the rank and file, if members are to feel they own a dispute and make crucial decisions about their own future.
There are many examples from history of factory occupations, but it took individual activists digging out accounts of them to show to Visteon workers for that lesson of our class to filter down, and arguably too late. Visteon workers learned how to do factory occupations, mount and organise pickets, make speeches at support meetings and so on as they went along. The trade union movement, at a rank and file level, could be much more prepared to act; this is bread and butter competence that we need to get back to having among all union activists.
Whatever our assessment of the Unite bureaucracy — on the whole, the union activists will defend their role, and sometimes for good reasons, if the criticism is coming from people who want to bash the unions — it is very clear that the Visteon workers’ method of fighting is vastly different from that of the bureaucrats. And it has been shown, in this small dispute, to be vastly superior! Getting a good result where, at the start, none was even remotely on the horizon!
On 16 May Unite have organised a jobs march in Birmingham. That march had been organised before Visteon broke, and it’s good that they have called it. But so much more important will be spreading the lessons of the Visteon dispute: fight — even defying the anti-union laws and laws on ownership — to win!