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Issue 34, January 1999

Car wars and class war

THE CAR industry has been a battleground between workers and management ever since Henry Ford introduced the first mass-produced Model-T.

Ford tried to keep unions out by paying his workers slightly more than they would have got in other industries, but mainly by his methods of fear and intimidation. The US manufacturers hired armed thugs to gun down union activists - General Motors had its own private army of armed goons who patrolled the shopfloor in Detroit. In the end, however, this didn't stop the unions organising and leading mass struggles - particularly the mass sit-down strikes or occupations of the 1930s.

Today the car bosses are slightly more sophisticated - they now use the union leaders instead to act as their enforcers. The 14,000-strong Longbridge works has been in the headlines as BMW, the German owners of Rover, threaten to shut the whole place down if the workers don't accept management-imposed working practices. Despite carefully worded press releases, BMW have been unable to hide the fact that there has been shopfloor opposition to their plans, with press reports of 'fierce resistance, notably from shop stewards'.

In reality, it has been some rank-and-file shop stewards and shopfloor workers who have been defiant, while many senior stewards accepted the bosses plans. Now it seems that the trade union representatives on BMW's European works council (set up as part of the EC social chapter regulations) have supported the company plans. BMW say that they have to introduce these working practices to avoid massive losses. The union leaders have accepted this and say there is no alternative if the plant is to be saved.

Workers on the shopfloor, however, are still resisting because they have no alternative. The company wants them completely at their beck and call. This includes the so-called 'personal working time account', where workers could be working short time on one model and so end up 'owing' the bosses any number of hours, which can be carried over to the next year or even longer. If the market improves, or they are moved to a better selling model, they could be forced to work above the standard 37-hour week for nothing! In the words of one Longbridge worker, 'they want us to be married to the company'. Across the whole industry, bosses are on the offensive with one message - do as we say or you will be guilty of losing thousands of jobs to our competitors.

  This is a global phenomenon. International competition in the car industry has never been so intense. The globalisation of capitalism has sped this up enormously. Car manufacturers have for years sought to build a 'world car', with assembly plants in one country and component suppliers in another. But it has been the emergence of the newly industrialised nations which has really put the pressure on. The world car industry, with a total market of 58 million cars, had a capacity of 79 million last year. In other words, there is an excess capacity of 21 million - more than the entire productive capacity of the US auto industry. By the year 2002 this will be the equivalent of 80 modern assembly plants sitting idle.

Now the world-wide recession, which started in those same newly-industrialised nations of South-East Asia, is putting the existing auto companies under tremendous competitive pressure. Wage rates in the car plants of Mexico, for example, are one sixth of those in Europe.

Sir Alex Trotman, president of Fords, said recently that European car workers will have to take cuts because 'costs are too high in Europe, including the social overheads', ie company payments to the state for national insurance and health benefits. He went on to predict that of the 40 car companies in the world today, no more than six would be left in the next few years, 'two in the USA, two in Europe and two in Japan'.

The importance of the UK car manufacturing industry in the overall economy is second to none. Rover is Britain's biggest exporter, exporting 290,000 cars last year. For every car worker there are five or six other workers who depend on the car industry, such as component suppliers. Around 500,000 workers work directly for the industry. So, if a factory like Longbridge were to shut, it would mean the loss of 50,000 or more jobs.

  All the car bosses are using the fear of unemployment to intimidate the workforce into submission. But there will be no end to this threat if the union leaders continue to retreat in the face of the employers' offensive. That is why in factories like Longbridge there has been an undeclared guerrilla war by workers and their shop stewards against BMW.

Union leaders, like MSF general secretary Roger Lyons, have blamed the 'high pound' and 'high interest rates' for the crisis - even organising a lobby of the Bank of England monetary policy committee. But these are temporary capitalist phenomena and are already coming down. By themselves they will solve nothing. After all, the value of the deutschmark (DM) against the pound was eleven to one in the 1970s - it's now around the 3DM level. In fact, we are in for a time of competitive interest rate cuts as competing national capitalist economies seek to make their own products cheaper on the world market. (All the South-East Asian nations have cut interest rates - Japan's now stand at %!)

By putting forward such 'solutions', the union leaders effectively seek to manage the capitalist system better than the capitalists themselves. Instead, they should say: We will not accept our members paying for the crisis in a system over which they have no control.

The UK car industry, particularly companies like Rover, has been under-funded and under-invested for decades. Until the BMW takeover, less than 3% of turnover was reinvested in plant and equipment. BMW claim that they have brought this up to 7%, but this has been mainly in greenfield sites like 'the factory within a factory' at Rover's Oxford plant - not at Longbridge.

  In 1975 the Labour government was forced to nationalise what was then British Leyland (BL). But no real investment followed, instead the Labour government oversaw the closure of more and more factories. Thatcher gave BL away to British Aerospace in the 1980s, with millions in sweeteners for the BAe board. BMW then bought Rover for 800m. After all this Rover workers might well be sceptical of a call to bring the company back into public ownership. Nevertheless, socialists have to explain that, on the basis of private ownership of the means of production, car workers will continue to face slumps and mild upturns followed by even greater downturns, with all the consequences that means for their jobs.

BL was nationalised mainly because of the strength of the trade unions in the 1970s. But the key demand for workers' control and management, raised at the time by Militant supporters in the Rover factories in Solihull and Longbridge, was ignored. Instead a bastardised form of this was introduced, which effectively undermined the independence of the shop stewards' committees in the factories.

The job of socialists at the turn of the millennium is to once again explain the superiority of socialist planning over capitalist anarchy. This does not mean state capitalism, whereby previous Labour governments nationalised industries because the private sector was incapable of modernising them - but, instead, linking up the struggle to save jobs with the case for public ownership and democratic workers' control and management.

The car industry is a vital part of any modern economy. Car workers have the skills to build a range of products that can be used for cheap transport policies. Environmental considerations have to be taken into account, which is why workers' control and management is a key component of a socialist programme for the vehicle manufacturing sector of the economy. Committees of workers from the industry, together with committees from the wider community, would together plan what is needed for the population as a whole.

Car workers have one of the most militant histories of struggle because, being concentrated at the sharp end of the production system in their thousands, they are forced to act collectively to protect their jobs and conditions. Raising socialist ideas - the idea that there is an alternative to the capitalist system - can only strengthen the fight against the bosses 'sack-and-closure' policies.

Bill Mullins

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