Car workers in Britain and Ireland show how to fight back

By Rachel Page

On 31st March workers at Visteon plants in Belfast, Enfield and Basildon were told that they were being sacked. Visteon UK had been placed into administration and the workers, who had only been given a few minutes notice, were told to leave without the redundancy pay that they should have been entitled to. Angry at the news and the way they were being treated, workers at the Belfast plant, did not simply go home as was demanded, instead they took the decision to fight back and occupy their factory. News of action taken in Belfast provided inspiration for workers at the Enfield plant in North London to occupy the following day, while workers at Basildon, who attempted occupation but were driven away by riot police, set up 24 hour pickets at their factory in Essex. Over the course of the next few weeks through their resistance and determination, and despite legal challenges, workers forced Ford to give in and offer out thousands of pounds in redundancy payments.


Many of those working for Visteon were former Ford employees. Ford, which set up Visteon in 1997, subsequently spun off the company in 2000 but remained Visteon’s biggest customer. This method of outsourcing drives down wages and working conditions and is popular with multinational companies who want to make greater profits and squeeze more from workers. Supplier companies are forced to compete for contracts and so have to find a way to produce at the lowest possible cost, which is usually done by lowering wages. Workers at Visteon factories who previously worked for Ford were, nevertheless, promised that their contracts would continue to mirror Ford conditions, although new workers employed after the company was spun off were to be victims of lower wages and conditions

All promises by their employers were suddenly cast aside, however, when around 600 workers were sacked at the end of March and Ford tried to claim that they had nothing to do with Visteon. This meant that workers were left without the company redundancy pay and pensions that they should have been entitled to.

Workers fought back hard over the course of the next few weeks. In addition to the occupation of their factories and 24 hour picketing, workers spoke at meetings, organised rallies to seek solidarity from the community and to keep their campaign in the media. Even though the trade union Unite,  which the Visteon workers were members of,  persuaded  workers to end the occupation at Enfield (which could potentially have weakened resistance) after the administrator KPMG obtained a possession order for the plant, the workers themselves refused to give in and maintained 24 hour pickets. Workers in Belfast kept up their occupation for the course of the following five weeks. Groups of workers from a number of different unions as well as students also played an important role in supporting the occupying workers by organising collections and joining solidarity rallies. During a rally against job cuts organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Bus workers in Belfast temporarily stopped work to show support and solidarity with Visteon workers.

After five weeks of resistance the determination of the workers led to their winning of a significant partial victory against Ford Motor Company. After previously refusing to acknowledge responsibility for the workers, Ford were forced into negotiation and at the beginning of May, Visteon workers who were former employees of Ford were offered 52 weeks pay plus 5.2%, on top of the statutory redundancy pay Visteon was offering them. Workers who were not former employees of Ford were offered 10 times the statutory redundancy pay they would have received. According to one former worker speaking about their victory “Our struggle has been worthwhile – like the Waterford Crystal workers, we have led the way for everybody else. We want to make other companies think twice about treating workers like this again.”  

What is perhaps more important than the winning of redundancy pay is the fact that the actions of Visteon workers forced Ford, a major multinational company, to give in to the workers’ demand that they acknowledge their responsibilities. Visteon workers showed that workers do not simply have to accept attacks on their right to work and disappear without a fight. Their resistance demonstrates the potential strength of workers when they act collectively and fight back against the attacks on them. Such actions can act as inspiration for workers throughout the world.


 At the same time it is important that this should not be considered a total victory. The factories are now closed and the workers left without their jobs. Some workers demanded during the occupation that production should be stopped throughout the Ford group. This type of action would have made the workers’ protest much more powerful, potentially ensuring a better outcome for workers but it was not supported by the trade union Unite. Others have suggested that the factories, which now stand empty, could be nationalised and reopened by the government, especially considering that the British government is supposedly creating thousands of green jobs, to produce more environmentally friendly green cars.


 The question of pensions also has not been resolved and the fight to make Ford honour its promise to workers continues. Workers who had worked for Visteon, many for up to forty years, were relying on receiving their pension to live out a peaceful retirement. This is threatened now as the UK Visteon pension scheme is in deficit and will mostly likely be placed in the government’s Pension Protection Fund (PPF) meaning that the pension workers receive will greatly be decreased. While Visteon’s management is happy to let the workers pay, they have found a way to protect themselves by transferring their own pensions to Visteon Engineering Services. Visteon workers are continuing the fight and holding regular protests demanding that Ford pay the Visteon UK pension deficit.

The sacking of Visteon workers illustrates how employers are using the recession to attack workers.


When Visteon UK went into administration, administrators claimed that Visteon Corporation (Visteon UK’s US parent) had accumulated losses of £669m since 2000 and so had no choice other than to close the factories. If Visteon UK have been making a loss since 2000, why was it supposedly forced to close so suddenly with such little notice given to employees? Some evidence has emerged to suggest that the closure of at least Visteon UK’s Belfast plant had actually been considered for a number of years. According to the Belfast Telegraph, Visteon commissioned “Project Stone” in 2001 to consider different plans to downsize or close the plant in Belfast. The project at the time opted to downsize the plant and in its risk explanation outlined problems that it could face during closure. If the plant were to close in 2001 the report stated that, ““Risk of industrial dispute is high because strategy is not in line with the EWC [European Worker's Council] agreement. Risk to the customer [Ford] is high because of the likely-hood of industrial action and/or sabotage.” If the plant was to close in 2007, however, then according to the report “Risk of industrial dispute is low because EWC agreement is not broken. Risk to the customer is medium because morale inside the plant will decline as time goes on.”  Workers have claimed that the recession was used as an excuse to sack them. If Visteon was worried about the risk of industrial dispute then it is possible that they were hoping the recession would mean that workers were less likely to put up a fight for their jobs when the factories were closed.


Indeed it is workers across the world who are being made to pay for the recession. The crisis has hit the car industry particularly badly due to falling sales and overproduction and manufacturers have responded by attacking workers. In Britain many of the major car manufacturers have announced job cuts including Nissan who have sacked 1,200 workers and Jaguar Land Rover who have cut 2,200 jobs. At the same time employers have taken advantage of workers’ fear of losing their jobs to drive through cost cutting measures, which are forcing workers to work harder for less money and worse conditions. These have included wage cuts or pay freezes as well as the introduction of short time working. Toyota and trade union Unite, for example, agreed in March to a 10% reduction in both wages and working hours for workers at two Toyota factories in Derby and Wales. These measures were purely designed to cut costs rather than production itself, and so clearly represent an attack on workers as it means that they are expected to manufacture the same number of vehicles in less time and for less money. Instead of fighting back against such an attack, however, Unite accepted these conditions presenting them as necessary to protect jobs.


Although it did not save their jobs, the willingness of some unions and workers to accept such attacks only makes the challenge by Visteon workers even more important. Visteon workers fought back and did not let Ford and Visteon cut their jobs at the minimum cost they had hoped for. In addition the Visteon workers have provided inspiration and support strengthening workers struggles elsewhere. At the recent occupation by workers facing redundancy at the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, for example former Visteon workers were among those who sent messages of support and visited the factory to show their solidarity.




One further inspiring story comes from the Linamar car plant (which also formerly belonged to Visteon) in Swansea in Wales. Management at the plant were forced to back down and reinstate sacked trade union convenor Rob Williams following the threat of strike action by workers at the plant. Rob Williams was known for his militancy in defending union members at the factory and had also helped build solidarity for the Visteon workers. It was believed by workers at the Linamar plant that Rob had been sacked to weaken the union in preparation for making attacks on workers at the plant. Workers showed solidarity with Rob despite being intimidated by management and threatened with the sack if they did so. Their victory further goes to illustrate the strength of workers uniting and taking action together.