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Visteon UK, April-May 2009
The Visteon struggle: the story of what happened
Visteon workers, photo Paul Mattsson
On 31 March Visteon went into administration and we were thrown out at six minutes notice without the redundancy money we had been guaranteed and without our pensions. The Irish Visteon workers in Belfast took a proactive stance, refusing to leave the factory. At first our guys were shocked, because they had probably trusted the employer too much and believed that Visteon UK directors were trying to make the business viable.
Frank Jepson (Unite convenor, Visteon Basildon), photo Paul Mattsson
Frank Jepson, Unite union convenor, Visteon Basildon
When it happened the guys were on their knees, their guts were kicked out. Also, Kevin (the Enfield convenor) and myself were inexperienced. The place was covered with security guards. I think there wasn't enough confidence at that point to make a stand.
But that evening Kevin and I spoke to each other, we rang round when everyone had had time to digest what had happened and planned to come back the next morning, 10am, to storm both the plants at the same time.
The administrators didn't resist. But Essex police - every 90 minutes they changed their lead police and came to speak to me. Every 90 minutes all day. They even brought a negotiator in because we were on the roof. The administrators were saying to the police they felt intimidated. We were threatened with arrest. They had dogs and riot gear. The guys wanted to stay in because we didn't want to let the others in Belfast and Enfield down, but in the end we reluctantly came out. I wanted to keep everyone together, not fall apart under pressure from the police right from the start.
So we set up the 24-hour pickets, at least six men on four-hour slots. I started delegating jobs, starting with the food and shopping. A meeting was set up with Tony Woodley (joint general secretary of trade union Unite) and John Fleming, Ford president Europe, with me and the other convenors.
But Fleming cancelled; he wanted it only with Woodley. He said then he had no contractual obligation but admitted that we had been treated badly and that he would talk to the Visteon president. We had a protest at the VES building (Visteon Engineering Services, which is an allegedly independent Visteon company, still trading, to which the management had siphoned off their pensions). Protests have been an important part of keeping everybody going.
We tried a 'family day' - though the administrators wouldn't even let us plug the bouncy castle into the electric! We've protested at Ford showrooms, we had a demo in Basildon and, on another Saturday, a big day of action in Basildon town centre. It's been important to get the support of the Basildon community and local workplaces.
We've leafleted the tractor plant and other local workplaces. We had the local MP Angela Smith down to the picket line, we had the national officials on another day - different events on different days to keep everybody going.
The messages of support and money have been very important. And we used them to organise. When we did the first showroom protests, we emailed everyone who had supported us with our leaflets to ask them to do protests at their local showrooms.
We went to meet with Ford convenors to ask for support. We felt we met quite a bit of resistance at first, so we told them we'd fight on with or without their support, but that action by Ford workers would be vital. We wanted to get the Ford convenors on board to open the door to meetings with the stewards and workers. In the end they passed a resolution to say they would do whatever they could to support us. We were also doing research and collecting as much information as possible to build the case against Visteon, to show this was a pre-ordained plan to shut Visteon down, it had been planned for years.
Derek Simpson [the other joint secretary of Unite] went to America. Kevin went too, and we were given assurances there would be a package on the table. This was our first lesson in demoralisation. It got everyone's hopes up, everyone thought we would get what was fairly ours, everyone was talking about how much we were going to get. I tried to calm it down.
After two weeks a meeting was set up by Visteon with Dorothy Stephenson, HR (personnel) manager of Visteon Corporation. They kept changing the meeting place, in the end it was Pall Mall. The best food I've had for a long time! She refused to meet anyone except the union general secretaries. Len Drury and Steve Gawne, Visteon UK managing directors were there too, making wisecracks. She denied there had been talk of any substantial package; she said "I don't know what meeting you were at, I wasn't at that meeting".
She offered 40% of the statutory redundancy, but said she wasn't in a position to authorise it, and we would only get that if the pickets were stopped immediately and only if there were funds left after the administrators had paid all the creditors. We freaked out, we were so angry.
Three and half hours later we were given a revised offer of 16 weeks pay. But 12 weeks was ours anyway - in lieu of the 90 days notice of redundancy you're supposed to get, that we never had - and the rest was holiday pay. So actually she was offering nothing. The money would go in our banks immediately if we stopped the action. She vaguely said more might be available at a later date. We demanded she talk to us face to face. She came in all sympathetic. John Maguire (Belfast) accused them of deliberately running down the plants. She said they'd done all they could to make UK viable.
I said: "You deceived us into thinking that if we made efficiency measures, if we went down from three shifts to two shifts and cut the head count we'd be viable, but you had no intention of keeping it going". She said she understood how hard it was.
Then Kevin told her: "How the fuck can you understand how we are feeling, you've put us all into poverty. I will bring my three daughters to you and you can explain to them why we can't afford to live in our house anymore, why we have to move away from all their friends and why we can't feed them".
Simpson told them we'd be recommending rejection of this deal. She still sent everyone a letter hoping to divide us, hoping some would take it. Woodley said: "We'll bring Visteon down." He promised a video conference with Ford.
Back at the plants it made the mood even stronger. But we were left in limbo waiting for the video link-up. Wednesday to Monday nothing happened. Then on Monday night the video link-up happened and Fleming washed his hands of us. He was sorry, he'd done everything he could, but he had no obligation to us. A national Unite official told him he should pay these guys while it was still cheap. He said he'd take his chances. Another lesson in demoralisation.
So we had a Visteon joint national committee. That was a very productive meeting. We decided there we had to step up the battle. We decided to target the Bridgend Ford plant for solidarity action and to set up pickets there. We chose Bridgend because of the economic effect. They make Fiesta engines there, the only place in Europe they make them. Fiesta is built in Cologne. At the start of the recession the German government offered £2,000 to every car owner who traded their car in. So Bridgend was running at full production, no down days. In fact this German measure caught Bridgend by surprise and they were three weeks behind schedule. And it was also easy to picket, one gate in and out. The Welsh regional secretary gave us assurances Bridgend would take action.
But Socialist Party members kept giving us advice to go up first and speak to them to prepare the ground. We also heard that workers at Ford Dagenham advised us to picket their gates 21 and 22 and we would get support. We heard that the wagon drivers wouldn't drive past pickets. So we planned we would do Dagenham too if necessary.
All this was leaked so that Ford would know what we were planning. And it worked. Fleming asked to talk. Less than a week after saying he had no obligation, he wanted to talk. The pickets at Bridgend were postponed. The pickets were our trump card. We didn't want to do it without getting full support of the Bridgend workers. Kevin Nolan and I went to meet the Bridgend convenor and senior stewards to lay the groundwork and to plan it. That was absolutely the right thing to do. It was very productive; the stewards were definitely on board. Everyone was asking 'when are the talks?'. Some were suspicious that they had already taken place. Guys were asking how long we were going to give them. Woodley was due to visit the pickets on the Wednesday but we got called into the national office.
There was no offer on the table. We were told to ask for something and we'd get it. The 'something' was the full redundancy we were due, a 12 weeks payment (the 90 days in lieu), and an additional 39 weeks. Ford were paying the money but through Visteon.
It sounded like a good offer but we felt we had our foot on their throats and we should push for more. Especially the Belfast workers - they really wanted the plant re-opened and the pensions sorted. So we stayed over in hotels and went back the next day. Most of the day Ford never got back to us. So we went to the pensions meeting - the pensions issue is being dealt with separately with a pensions lawyer.
We went back to see Woodley. There was still nothing and I started to freak out, I said we'll have to go and start the picketing of Ford plants. We went to the House of Commons because Angela Smith was raising it in parliament. Then the news came through. The offer was up to 52 weeks from 39, at shift rate not basic day rate, and we got the Ford pay rise (which Visteon workers should have got but didn't) back to November.
It's huge. We intend to continue to fight on the pensions. We didn't think at this stage we could fight to get the jobs back and in the end the Belfast guys agreed.
Real trade unionism
I worked there for years before I was the convenor. I have always fought for justice; if I see someone being bullied I always stand up against the bully. I was a group leader but I refused to take a supervisor job. I used to moan that there wasn't enough communication, and in the end I took on the convenor's role so that the guys would get the representation they should, and get the communication. In the short time I was convenor the guys knew that whenever I was in a meeting they were in with me. I wasn't doing it for myself or my own ego or advancement.
This struggle made me realise what can be achieved if we all stand together and be determined, and refuse to be treated with disrespect or bullied. I joined the Socialist Party because of the work the party does, the guidance given. We're all on the same side, all looking to get change.
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