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Educate, agitate, occupy!

Kate Ferguson visits the occupied Visteon factory in Enfield, north London

June 3, 2009
10 min read

The workers are organised. They have two men standing at the gate to the factory monitoring who comes and goes. More congregate on the fire escape, which weaves up to the upper floor of the factory. They are chatting to one another and listening to Kiss FM at full blast while surveying the ground below, ready to raise the alarm if they spot the bailiffs or police coming.

This is the workers’ sixth night occupying the Visteon car parts factory in Enfield, where until a week ago 225 men and women had worked, many of them all their lives, until they were told by administrators KPMG that their employer had gone into administration, their jobs were gone and they could collect redundancy leaflets from the table. Now they have barricaded themselves in and are taking it in shifts to sleep on the floor, huddled below the machinery.

Tony Walker is a setter who has worked at the plant for over 24 years. ‘There’s not even been any dignity in being made redundant. That’s why we had to do this – we had nothing left to lose,’ he says.

Tony and the other 150 or so men and women staging the occupation are protesting at the way in which they were laid off and Visteon’s refusal to uphold their Ford contracts. These came with them when the plant was transferred over from Ford to Visteon UK in 2000, guaranteeing them lifetime protection of their terms and conditions of employment, including redundancy packages.

But since they were called into the plant’s meeting room on Tuesday 31 March and told of their forced redundancy with just six minutes notice there has been scant mention of this ‘lifetime protection’. Neither Ford nor Visteon has agreed to uphold their contracts and pay the full redundancy packages – after all, Visteon owes £669 million in debts and there are other creditors to be paid.

Workers at the other two Visteon plants in Basildon and Belfast have both taken similar actions. The Belfast workers were the first to occupy on the evening the administrators were called in, and it was when word of this spread to Enfield that workers here began planning their own occupation through hurried text messages and telephone calls. In Basildon, workers have been staging a round-the-clock picket of their factory after their occupation was disbanded when they were threatened with riot police being called in to force them out.

The occupations are part of a new wave of worker-led militancy bubbling up across the UK and globally as ordinary people try to work out their own responses to the redundancies, closures and cuts tossed up by the recession. In Glasgow, for example, a group of parents from the Wyndford and St Gregory’s primary schools, threatened with closure by the council, are several weeks into their occupations. Parents invited to the schools (which back onto each other) for tea and cakes on the last Friday afternoon of term decided to seize the opportunity to raise the profile of their campaign against the school closure by barricading themselves into the gym halls.

‘From the start, occupation had been an issue,’ says Claire McGuiness, one of the mothers staging the protest, ‘but no one really wanted to be the first. We’re all just ordinary mums and grandparents and we were quite fearful of getting arrested.’

Poor treatment

At Enfield, the workers still look stunned that their jobs could have been taken away so suddenly and painfully. No one says it was a job for life, but it’s clear that’s what it felt like. With their jobs gone and the contracts guaranteeing them a decent redundancy package cast aside, the prevailing sense is that they have nothing left to lose by occupying the factory.

Six days into the occupation, the initial shock and desperation has given way to real anger at their treatment. Davos, a 29-year-old Lithuanian production operator at the plant, when asked to describe the feeling in the plant, says simply: ‘It’s fuming. Everyone is fuming.’

The workers’ anger is exacerbated by recollections of their poor treatment at the plant during the years they worked there before the redundancy announcement. As one longstanding employee, Elma Walker, puts it, ‘Most of us worked there all our lives, but to them you were nothing. They never used our names, they used to just call us bodies – “I need two bodies”. It was disgusting.’

Since the occupations began a confidential Visteon document entitled ‘Project Protea’ has emerged suggesting that Steve Gawne, the head of Visteon UK, had been planning to run down the three plants and bankrupt the existing company. This was with the aim of setting up a new company, Visteon Automotive Products, without the debts and employing workers on lower wages and worse terms and conditions.

‘Some companies are using the current economic situation as an excuse to close plants,’ warns Brian Harris, the Unite union’s regional officer covering Enfield. Such tactics have long been used by employers attempting to cut costs and increase their profit margins, and it is feared that more companies will follow, using the recession as an excuse to worsen workers’ terms and conditions.

Solidarity and wider reaction

The occupations at the plants have struck a chord with people. When I arrive there are a group of men and women from the local Anatolian People’s Cultural Centre sitting on a picnic bench outside the factory; they are eating and warming up by a brazier. They have come along to the factory every evening since the protest began to show their support for the occupiers.

Ozgur Karakos, 25, from the Cultural Centre in Enfield, says: ‘We think it’s unfair. They have families to look after and the promises made to them have been broken. This is a way of them expressing themselves. Visteon are a big company and this should be an example to other workers who are losing their jobs and not getting redundancy.’

Supporters have been delivering food and blankets, messages of support and tips on how to become squatters in their own factory throughout the week. As I stand outside the workers take a delivery of several boxes of fruit.

And this is just not one way traffic. The Visteon workers seem genuinely touched and inspired by the outpouring of solidarity and support the local community, Unite and other trade unions and assorted political radicals have showed them.

Steve Parenti, a material technician who has worked at the plant for three years and was chair of its Unite union branch, says: ‘The support we have got from all walks of life has been unbelievable. We are going to a meeting tonight to meet workers from a call centre to talk to them about setting up a union.’

In an occupation initiated by workers who felt isolated and fearful that they would get arrested because of their actions and that the public may not sympathise with them, deliveries of boxes of fruit from the local grocers and invitations to speak at meetings are important signs that people are listening and taking notice of what they are doing and saying.

A model for organising

Emboldened by the success of their occupation so far and encouraged by the solidarity they have received, those occupying are coming to view their actions as not just acceptable, but as models for organisation and resistance.

‘This is democracy,’ Davos says, as he stands guard at the front gate. ‘We are protecting our rights in the right way.’

‘People have to put their foot down now and take a stand,’ says Steve Parenti. ‘There are only a handful of people taking over our buildings – but if everyone did it the government would have to change the legislation.’

Around the world, workers facing similar cuts and redundancies are increasingly turning to occupation as a ‘tactic of last resort’ to force employers to renegotiate with them. In the Ukraine, for example, which has been hit particularly hard by the global economic crisis, suffering a 32 per cent drop in industrial output in January and February compared to 2008, 300 engineering workers in the town of Kherson occupied: first their plant and then the local provincial administration building. They were demanding their wages, which had been left unpaid and amounted to £450,000.

The French variant on the theme of occupation, ‘boss-napping’, has caught people’s imaginations and won some successes. In March, the chief executive and director of human resources of Sony France were both held hostage by workers protesting against layoffs – they were released the following day after promising to renegotiate the redundancy packages. Two weeks later Luc Rousselet, the industrial director of stationary producers 3M, was held hostage by workers at the Pithiviers factory demanding better treatment for the 110 employees facing redundancy. 3M agreed to a new round of negotiations with the union in exchange for his release.

The week of the Enfield occupation saw protests and occupations gather pace. In London the G20 protesters were demonstrating and setting up protest camps in the heart of the City. The school occupation in Glasgow was ongoing, as was an occupation by electronics workers at the FI Microconnections factory in France.

It seems likely we will see more. As Brian Harris puts it, ‘Workers have always reacted to unjust and unfair actions by their employers, and as employers try to tighten the screw we will see more reactions of this type, especially as employers use the excuse of the economy to cut jobs.’

These occupations and protests are manifestations of anger and real grievances. For the past decade or so, occupations like the one in Enfield have been rare and even hard to imagine, with talk of them feeling like history lessons – heavy with nostalgia but with little practical meaning. But times have changed. Occupation is back on the agenda.

—-

Visteon: What happened next

The occupation at Enfield ended a week after it began with an agreement struck by the Unite union and the courts that ensured that the organisers would not be prosecuted. But the protests went on. Workers at Enfield and Basildon continued with their 24-hour pickets and vowed to continue until Visteon agreed to a decent severance package. In Belfast workers remained in occupation.

The campaign stayed solid. The occupiers kept up their picketing day and night to make sure the company couldn’t get any scab labour in or any machinery out.

And they turned up the heat by targeting Ford. Ford owned Visteon until 2000 and is still intertwined with it – many of the workers were still on Ford contracts. Ford had claimed that Visteon was no longer its responsibility. But the workers and their supporters started picketing Ford dealerships across the country and raising the possibility of solidarity walk-outs at Ford factories.This was what scared the company – one of the biggest corporations in the world – into making the huge pay-out.

Finally, the campaign ended in victory – on May Day. Workers won tens of thousands of pounds in redundancy payments. The 600 Visteon workers in Enfield, Basildon and Belfast will get as much as £50,000 each. They are now living proof that occupations can be the way to win.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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