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Uk: Car workers under attack

Uk: Car workers under attack
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In the period leading up to the recent sell-off of BMW's Rover Longbridge plant in Birmingham, the so-called left was busily at work befuddling the minds of militant workers by mounting campaigns for nationalisation and public ownership. Despite having a left-wing veneer, this campaign has certainly been no rallying of the troops for class action: rather it has involved little more than a call to Government departments to intervene and produce a few financial «sweeteners» for the successful bidder.

Eventually, amidst the popping of champagne bottles, BMW would agree to hand over the plant to the Phoenix consortium, headed by the pre-BMW manager of ROVER, John Towers: a consortium which includes an organisation called the Mayflower Corporation, whose directors include... former Prime-minister John Major! a fact brought to light with much relish by Private Eye, but not mentioned elsewhere. In the euphoric atmosphere it was announced that jobs «will be saved», and a treasury backed scheme would offer a quarter of the shares to the workforce (with others to car dealers!). The trade and industry secretary, the TGWU negotiator and the «good» capitalist, John Towers were heralded as the heroes of the hour.

Needless to say there was a catch: the Phoenix proposals also include a commitment to a massive 'restructuring' involving an estimated 1,750 redundancies. And no doubt when BMW accepted the Phoenix bid, Towers's proven record as a keen 'restructure'(in his previous job as chief executive of Concentric, he reduced the workforce by a quarter from 2,000 down to 1,500) was taken into account.

Meanwhile, in other sectors of the car industry, Ford's forthcoming `slimming down' of its European operations is affecting the 20,000 hourly paid workers employed in Ford's 21 manufacturing sites in Britain. Several plant closures and heavy job losses are expected. At Dagenham, Ford's huge plant in Essex which currently employs 8,000 workers, 1,500 jobs have already been cut from the car assembly plant and 700 workers have already accepted redundancy and early retirement offers in the latest cuts. Now has come the announcement that production of the Fiesta model will cease and be moved to more modern production facilities in Cologne. Redundancy notices have been handed to all workers over 50, and the plant will be converted to engine production. Strike action has been threatened at Dagenham and the company's other UK plants if production of the Fiesta is halted.

At Nissan's huge Sunderland car plant, with a workforce of 5,000 workers, a 30 per cent «cost reduction programme» is in force, which will involve further redundancies, and it has already cut its parts and material suppliers down from 1,200 to 600.

Honda has also announced job cuts, although it has said it hopes to achieve the cuts without redundancies.

A precarious and uncertain future therefore continues to be the lot of workers in the car industry.

In the face of these attacks, instead of encouraging the development of independent workers' organisation against the strangle hold of the Labour Party and the Trade Union leadership, pseudo-socialist remedies for state control of the car industry are once again befuddling the minds of militants: «Public ownership is the only way to keep Rover together» and «Rover should be run by the people who know how everything works and how to make it better - Rover workers», are characteristic slogans (quoted from Car Bulletin, a Trotskyist rank-and-file publication). But in fact, what appears to be a rather radical and even socialist solution, is in fact thoroughly reactionary. This is for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it perpetuates the illusion that a bourgeois government has both the will, and the capability of improving the lot of working people.

This illusion is unfortunately widespread in the British Isles and has for virtually the whole of the twentieth century relied on the Labour Party's Clause 4 which promised:
To secure for the producers by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production».
The rather tepid and ambiguous Clause Four (note especially the «that may be possible») was drawn up in 1918 by Henderson and the Webbs, the architects and main proponents of Fabianism: a philosophy which was designed as a conscious means to avert revolution. Thus the 1922 manifesto finished with the headline «AGAINST REVOLUTION» and claimed: «Labour's programme is the best bulwark against violent upheaval and class wars».

Despite this open anti-revolutionary objective, clause 4 has been used to pull the wool over workers eyes ever since, and also deployed to give credibility to the notion that left-wing elements within the Labour Party could eventually 'conquer' it to a revolutionary position. Thus even outside the Labour Party, Trotskyist groups would feel it incumbent upon themselves to «fight for Clause 4» as a sign of «the Labour Party's commitment to a minimal anti-capitalist position» (the SWP view).

The situation is now different. «New» Labour not so very long ago ditched clause 4 as it was confident that the Tories anti-strike and solidarity legislation would be able to keep the workers in check. The Labour Party doesn't even bother to pretend to be socialist anymore and the notion of common ownership has now bee so totally abandoned that it can with impunity be substituted with the notion of «State intervention» and «State Aid», and none will even bat an eyelid! Thus the Labour government's intervention in the Rover takeover bid boiled down to nothing more than simply approving a deal which involved bunging a few shares to the workers that stay on, and a bit of redundancy money to those who are for the chop.

But even if the defence of Clause 4 is no longer a rallying cry, you can be guaranteed that reinstating it will be! And thus will militant workers be led by the Trotskyists back onto the path of lobbying for nationalisation rather than sticking to their guns in the battle for the defence of living standards.

The unions, as ever hanging onto the Labour Party's coattails, have entirely harmonised their demands with the requirements of «New Labour». All they feel they have to do to preserve their role as workers' advocate is simply to urge the government to cough up more State aid. Thus in the period before the Rover sell-off, the general secretary wrote in the T & G Workplace Record:
The government should show that it was prepared to offer financial encouragement to potential buyers committed to keeping the group together»,
and as for the union's instructions to its members, under the heading «What you can do», it makes depressing reading: Write to the BMW chairman to express your disgust! Go into your local BMW or Rover showroom and ask the manager to pass on your concerns to the company! Write to your MP! In other words, union members are asked, as individuals rather than a class, to appeal to the bourgeois establishment to take pity on them. Are the employers supposed to feel so guilty they cave in? Was it just moral nastiness that led them to sell of Rover in the

first place? Such an insipid campaign entirely fails to recognise that it is the thirst for greater profits, imposed on them by the very nature of capitalist society, that has led to BMW's present sell-off.

But as most workers are drawn into struggle through immediate concerns i.e. losing jobs, wage-cuts etc. and are likely to be persuaded by the effectiveness of a policy in terms of the achievement of immediate goals, it is also worth looking at whether state control in the car industry has given any evidence of improving the standard of living and security of workers, even if there is no genuine socialist content to the policy. In order to do that, we need look no further than the history of the Longbridge plant.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the Labour Government would authorise the creation of one big British car company. The old British Motor Corporation merged with Standard-Triumph and Leyland to form the giant British Leyland Motor Corporation (BL). The Longbridge plant in Birmingham would be opened in this context and in 1974 was probably the most powerfully organised, as well as the largest in Britain. Within a few years of its formation, BL was in crisis, and the government would nationalise the company, buying a 95% stake share in the company at a cost of œ1.4 billion.

The years leading up to the nationalisation of Leyland took place in a climate where Britain's share of world trade had plummeted from 16.5% in 1960 down to 10.8% in 1970. This downturn would produce a militant response from the working-class and during the latter part of the sixties, workers becoming increasingly politicised as they came up against an unholy alliance of Labour government, union leadership and bosses, which sought to limit industrial action and impose statutory wage freezes. Wave upon wave of unofficial strikes were unleashed and from 1964 to 1969 the number of strikes went up steadily from 1,456 to 3,116 per year.

During the period 1970 to 1974, there was a further escalation of militancy as Heath's Conservative government introduced the Industrial Relations Act (an act which in fact drew heavily on the In Place of Strife proposals drawn up by the previous Labour government, seeking to introduce official ballots and enforce government intervention in intractable disputes). Huge protests and strikes broke out amongst the miners and in the Clydeside shipyards, and around the curtailing of the rights to engage in secondary industrial action (the Pentonville dockers and the Shrewsbury building workers). The total number of strike days had reached 10,980,000 in 1970, was up to 13,551,000 in 1971, and climbed to 23,909,000 in 1972 - the highest figures since the 1920s. Between 1972 and 1974 there were 200 occupations of shipyards, factories, offices and workshops.

The Heath government would respond by declaring a state of emergency no less than five times. Its' heavy handed approach however was not working, and this was so evident to the ruling class that a section of the CBI would no longer accept Heath's leadership. The ruling class went behind the Labour Party, appreciating it would have to 'lean to the Left' to win votes from a confident working class in the forthcoming elections in 1974. The carrot of a Labour Government was duly dangled.

The Labour party, still equipped with Clause Four of its constitution expressing a commitment to establishing «the common ownership of the means of production», would thus declare itself as the most ardent advocate of nationalisation and workers democracy in the workplace; a move which it explained, tipping the wink to its middle class supporters, as designed to restore Britain in the world market as a major industrial power. The left-wing of the party was put in charge of forging this policy under the auspices of Tony Benn, and it was announced that the top twenty-five largest firms in the manufacturing sector would be taken into public ownership, and substantial holdings in the top 100 firms acquired by means of a National Enterprise Board (NEB).

Immediately before the election however the notion of taking the top twenty-five firms into public ownership was promptly ditched.

With the Labour party in power, the scheme would appear repackaged as an «explicit partnership to raise the quality of management» and boost manufacturing in the private sector. The National Enterprise Board was duly set up in November 1975, but its powers of compulsory acquisition were gone, and gone was its ability to increase its stake in private companies to 51%.

With the appointment of the businessman Sir Jack Ryder as chairman of the NEB, the transformation of the NEB was completed in the eyes of the most eloquent spokesman of industrial capital, the CBI, especially as Ryder announced his aim of providing «funds for private companies which could not obtain enough funds from private sources».

«Nationalisation» as a supposed step towards the «common ownership of the means of production» had become «State Aid» for private capitalists. And in the eyes of workers, all it had become was a scheme that might avoid redundancies.

But unfortunately the upshot of most State interventions resulted precisely in... job losses, and the NEB's much vaunted «planning agreements» revealed themselves not as schemes to help companies avoid redundancies and look for new ways of employing workers, but rather as ways to use government cash to underline and reinforce the need for workers to make sacrifices. The Labour government thus managed to weave a massive web of illusion around the workforce and pass off what was basically an asset - stripping operation as... socialism! And it was a policy which went hand in hand with massive cuts in social spending: which between 1976-1978 came to a massive reduction, after allowing for inflation, of 9.5%.

Thus the NEB would grant £162 million to Chrysler to keep it afloat. The result? 8,000 workers out of a workforce of 25,000 were made redundant. Eventually in July, 1978, after two years of speed-ups and pressure on the workforce, it was sold to Peugeot without Chrysler having told the government, let alone the workforce.

But this was small-scale compared to the £1.4 billion with which the government bought a 95% share of British Leyland. There were, however, as with the Chrysler deal, strings attached. This huge grant was conditional on the recommendations of the Ryder Report, which advocated widespread «rationalisation» of work practices, with the aim of speeding up production and «slimming down» the workforce.

The Ryder report, which derived substantially from the findings of the Donovan Commission published in 1968, proposed to address that most worrying of problems for the bourgeoisie: shop floor organisation and unofficial strikes, and it involved, in essence, a scheme to systematically buy off a large section of the militants under the name of 'worker participation'. Its new slogan of «participation» was taken up with gusto by the NEB as it recommended a comprehensive scheme for British Leyland with stewards, convenors and officials in joint committees with management at almost every level of the company from the shop floor to national level - except that Ryder made it quite clear that management would retain the final say and full decision-making power. The stewards were thus drawn off the shop floor and drawn into an unequal «partnership» with management.

Thus in 1975, senior stewards accepted a three-tier system of participation accompanied by an announcement that 12,000 jobs had to go. Now instead of seven full-time stewards, Longbridge had more than fifty, and their enthusiasm for the new scheme was such that even the Financial Times would heap praise on them.

The convenor of the Longbridge plant, a member of the communist party and with a strong party section to back him up, would defend the stewards involvement in the Ryder plan as a «step towards workers' control», and shop-floor opposition was dismissed as an unprincipled alliance of «money-militants», right-wingers and «Trots». Now that the company was nationalised, so the CP line went, the workforce had a duty to pull their weight and make a go of it. Unofficial strikes were clamped down on and «continuous production» became the gospel of the CP and management alike. Now that the workers were marching into a glorious socialist future, a privilege conferred on them by simply belonging to a nationalised industry, they had to knuckle under!

When in February 1977, 2,635 toolmakers throughout Leyland struck for a wage claim that in practice challenged phase two of the Labour Government's Social Contract, enforcing wage restraint, the government threatened them with the sack. The Longbridg convenor and the CP joined forces with the bosses and the AEUW Executive (despite the latter declaring that the sackings would have the full backing of the union). The convenor would even stoop so low as to encourage workers to cross the toolmakers picket line. In August 1978, when the tool room in the company's SU carburettor plant came out strike, both union officials and the leadership would line up with management once again.

At the end of 1977, the government appointed a tough new manager at British Leyland, Michael Edwardes, who proposed 12,500 redundancies in January 1978, and the closure of 13 plants. Mass meetings were held throughout Longbridge which voted to oppose the plan, but soon the majority of senior stewards and union officials decided to accept - indeed, at the official presentation of the plan the Longbridge senior stewards gave Edwardes a standing ovation! In September, receiving the full backing of the leadership of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering workers, Edwardes balloted the workers over the heads of the stewards and asked workers simply: 'Are you in

favour of the Leyland survival plan?' The vote was 'yes' by 7 to 1.

Now Edwards no longer needed participation, and he sacked the convenor. Despite some resistance to this move, support was muted and fizzled out, and Edwardes could extend his attacks to purging left-wingers at the Oxford Cowley plant.

In the early 80s, British Leyland was threatened by major changes in the motor industry as Japanese companies began to challenge the traditional three international market-leaders, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. By 1986, British Leyland were manufacturing cars which were in reality Hondas with Austin or Rover badges, and a new plant was built at Swindon as a joint venture supplying both with Honda-designed engines.

By now the British Firm (renamed Austin Rover) was just about breaking even, and in 1988 the firm was sold by the government to British Aerospace. New working practices, opposed vigorously on the shop-floor were pushed through and a new era of flexibility involving «teams» and «team leaders» was ushered in accompanied by the promise of «jobs for life».

In 1994, in classic asset-strippers fashion, Rover was sold to BMW for œ800 million, but despite investing œ2.5 billion, and receiving further help form the government, it made continuing losses, and is thought to have lost œ700 million last year. They received nothing but cooperation from every level of the unions, from shop stewards to general secretaries, and during the first Rover-induced crisis at BMW in October 1998, the T&GWUs National Automotive Officer Tony Woodley was the most enthusiastic backer of the company's «Working Time» deal, which involved total flexibility and «banked hours».

At very best, state intervention has only caused a temporary reprieve, and kept workers in a state of insecurity until the next downturn in the capitalist economy. If a small number of workers have gained during such interventions, many more have been cast onto the dole queue, into lower paid jobs and into the hands of a Dickensian black economy.

This then is the destiny of entrusting common ownership to the bourgeois state! They'll make sure that capital and property remains firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie, even if sometimes capitalism's contingent interests dictate that the State is the best manager, or owner, of certain sectors of capitalism at certain times and in certain places. All it needs is for state ownership to be portrayed as «a step towards a centralised socialist state» and a perfect means of disciplining workers presents itself. Workers can then be persuaded that by working within the state sector, they are defending a gain for the working class as a whole. Indeed, in Soviet Russia after the counter-revolution, this means of disciplining workers evolved into its most perfect form: by working in state industries, workers were urged to believe that they were defending socialism itself; despite the fact that within Russia all the categories of a capitalist economy remained, most notably money, and the workers remained workers, and the bourgeoisie, masked behind a totalitarian and centralised state form called Stalinism, remained the bourgeoisie, going about the task of industrialisation in a still essentially backward, rural economy.

The slogan of common ownership is meaningless unless linked to the realisation that it will only be accomplished after a workers revolution has overthrown the bourgeois state by force, fended off its restoration, and instituted a regime which has not only declared its communist ideology, but has put it into practice by abolishing money, wage labour and capital - and therefore also abolished the social categories «worker» and «capitalist» - and layed the basis for a rational management of human and natural resources on the basis of a common plan in a classless society. Such was the essence of the scheme outlined in Marx's criticism of the German Social Democratic Party's Gotha Programme and indeed implied in the rest of his work, and we remain the only party to stay true to its vision of its practical realisation - a programme which we only touch on here but deal with extensively elsewhere in the party press.

«Public ownership», «nationalisation» and «common ownership» are all slogans which represent a distortion of their one and only genuinely classist and communist counterpart - the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Until that has become a reality, or unless they are interpreted to mean that, they will always be prone to bourgeois interpretations which justify tying workers in struggle to the apron strings of their oppressors by means of appeals to the bourgeois labour parties, the government, and public opinion. All these slogans, in their wording, in fact imply that the State will take sectors of capitalist production into its hands and run them on behalf of all classes in society, in that they refer to the nation, the public, or the community. We call instead for the taking of the capitalist means of production into the hands of the working class with the goal of destroying capitalist production, and creating an economy which will be rational and dictated by need rather than by the market.

In order to keep on the road to this still distant but inevitable future goal, workers should reject the temptation to be sidetracked into campaigns for a centralised capitalism dressed up as socialism. Every time a group of workers, fighting to defend living standards and improve conditions, breaks free from the influence of the Labour Party, the union bosses, and the phoney workers parties, and manages to launch an intransigent and determined struggle to defend working class goals, a step has been made towards creating that necessary class consciousness and combativity which will eventually lead to the final battle for the downfall of capitalism.

Revolt by isolated sectors and industrial groups will not be sufficient - what is needed is the welding together of militant groups of workers into a united class organisation. This will be accomplished first economically then politically, and so become a force in society. Then the road will be open for the emancipation of the working class.

Source: «Communist Left», n. 14, Autumn 2000

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