The Ford Motor Co. is threatening to throw thousands of British workers on the scrap-heap and their unions are preparing for a showdown battle to change the company's mind.
Under immediate threat is Ford's plant at Halewood in the Manchester area. The plant, which has produced the Ford Escort for over 30 years, once employed 14,000 when Britain was the premier European base for the US company. But, as the Ford empire spread through Europe, its work force is now 4,500.
In a decision made in Detroit, Ford announced that the new Escort will be produced in Valencia, Spain and Saarlouis, Germany. Consequently, Halewood's double-shifts presently turning out 125,000 cars a year will be reduced to a single- shift and 1,300 jobs will be eliminated.
Workers at Halewood have been told the plant will be awarded
production of a new Ford multipurpose vehicle by 2000. Tony
Woodley, national secretary of the car workers' section of
the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), called this
a figment of a graphic-designer's imagination that is
more than a half-hearted and a half-baked promise.
Halewood workers see the promise as typical Ford deception believing, instead, that Ford intends to close the plant by 2000. That Ford policies are widely distrusted is made evident by the reaction of Ford workers around Britain where the U.S. company employs 30,000 workers at 20 plant sites.
On January 23 the three major unions in the Ford plants - the TGWU, the engineering and electricians union (AEEU) and the manufacturing union (MSF)—jointly decided to ballot all Ford workers for holding a national strike to save Halewood. When 500 Halewood workers traveled to London on the same day to demonstrate outside the company offices, they were joined by hundreds of fellow workers from other Ford plants.
The solidarity reflects discontent over the way Ford conducts its transnational empire, threatening to shift production from one country to another or from one plant to another. Comparisons of productivity are constantly made between plants in Britain, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal, with increased productivity posed as the aim of a transfer.
Ford has expressed dissatisfaction with Halewood's output, but workers there have boosted productivity by 50 percent in the 90s. This has been achieved despite the fact that Ford has been putting a low level of investment into Halewood in comparison with investment in its German and Spanish plants for which it claims a higher productivity.
Productivity, however, is not really the issue. Halewood has satisfied the market for the escort in Britain, where 129,000 were sold last year. The issue is the $203 million in lost profit from its European operations that Ford has suffered in the first nine months of 1996. Competition in the European car market has become increasingly cut-throat as European, U.S. and Asian manufacturers vie for the roads, and Ford's share in the market has declined.
Cost-cutting is Ford's answer. The ax has fallen on Halewood because British labor laws do not protect the jobs of workers as much as do the laws of Germany, Spain and other countries. It is cheaper to dump a British worker because the statutory separation pay in Britain is far less than in Germany or Spain. No legal agreement between company and unions is required for job cuts, as in the continental countries.
The British unions say that the Ford's cost-cutting should
be spread over all of its European operations, since the
profit loss is a European one. The hitting of Britain with
the cuts was denounced by the TGWU's Woodley who proclaimed:
This decision is an attack on all British operations. If
they get away with this, they can get away with it anywhere
in the combine. There is genuine anger among Ford workers.
They could not have done more to produce quality vehicles
and in our opinion they are as good as anyone in Europe.
The rundown of Halewood has particularly aroused a solidarity response from the other Ford workers in Britain because the company's operations are interlinked and it is feared that up to 10,000 jobs in the rest of its 20 plants would be affected.