On 6 June, Ford said it would close its Bridgend engine plant in 2020. Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of the Unite trade union, declared: “Unite representatives across all of Ford’s UK sites have previously stated if any plant in the UK is faced with closure or compulsory redundancies that they would all move to a ballot for industrial action.
“Ford bosses should be in no doubt. Unite will not stand back and let Ford turn its back on its loyal UK workforce and allow our members’ livelihoods to be shredded because they are cheaper and easier to fire than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
“In the coming days Unite will be consulting with our members across all of Ford’s UK sites on our next steps”.
Turner was repeating the decision of a meeting of the Ford national joint negotiating committee back on 12 April. The threat to Bridgend was already clear back then. In September 2017 JLR said it would end its contract for the Bridgend factory to supply engines early, in 2020. In January 2019 Ford said that it would cut 1,000 jobs at the 1,700-worker site.
After the 12 April meeting, Unite announced: “Trade unions Unite and GMB called on Ford to come clean over the future of its UK operations today... warning that its members at all five of the car giant’s UK sites were ‘ballot ready’ and ready to stand with any UK site faced with closure or compulsory redundancies.
“In a statement to workers at Bridgend, Dagenham, Daventry, Dunton and Halewood, the... committee said ‘if any location is faced with compulsory redundancies, or plant closure, then each location would be balloted for industrial action’.”
Sadly, Unite insiders report no actual move to call meetings or start ballots at the car factories. A statement later on the same day, 6 June, from Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, denounced Ford’s decision and “call[ed] upon the governments at the Welsh Assembly and Westminster to join us to save this plant”, but said nothing about industrial action. It did not even specify exactly what Unite is demanding from Cardiff and Westminster.
A strike across all Ford UK’s plants could turn Ford round, and force it to convert the Bridgend plant to electric engine production. Even if Ford plans to run down its four other UK sites, it needs the production from them now to keep its supply chains running. In 1997, workers at Renault plants across France, Belgium, and Spain staged an international strike against the closure of Renault’s Vilvoorde factory in Belgium. The strike was for only one hour. Vilvoorde eventually closed for car assembly, though there is still some component manufacture on the site. But that shows that if the unions mobilise and organise, even international strikes are possible.
Mark Drakeford, Wales’s Labour First Minister, condemned the closure, but made no call for it to be reversed. He said that the Welsh government would set up a “task force” to seek other jobs for the Ford workers, looking “at who we need to bring around the table to make sure that those skills are known and advertised, whether there is a need for re-skilling, to make sure the training packages are in place, and that they are tailored to the needs of individuals”.
The prospects for such a “task force” are poor. Bridgend is a fairly small town (47,000), and the Ford engine plant is a big factory (1,700 workers). According to Carwyn Jones, Labour member of the Welsh Assembly for Bridgend: “When it was built [in 1977, Ford] was the largest factory in Europe under one roof”. Swansea and Cardiff, the larger cities where other jobs might be found, are both twenty miles away.
Both Mark Drakeford and Bridgend’s Labour MP Madeleine Moon have said that Brexit is a factor in the closure, and Welsh Labour has come out for a new public vote on Brexit. An editorial in the Observer (9 June) spelled it out further:
“Only four years ago... car production was heading back to levels not seen for decades and investment in research and development was on the up...
[Now] “Honda announced in February that it planned to shut its Swindon plant in 2021 with the loss of 3,500 jobs. In the same month, Nissan reversed its decision to build the new XTrail vehicle at its Sunderland plant.
“More recently, Jaguar Land Rover, which is Britain’s largest carmaking operation, said it would be cutting thousands of jobs after its Indian owner, Tata Motors, revealed its UK arm suffered a £3.6bn loss over the previous year...
“Keen to avoid upsetting Leave voters, most [car industry bosses] have refused to cite Brexit as a reason for plant closures. Behind the scenes, though, executives talk about little else, ranking Brexit among the top two or three reasons to curtail investment in the UK and switch production to sites inside the European Union’s single market and customs union”.
In 2012, Patrick Minford, a pro-free market academic economist, told a Parliamentary committee that in case of Brexit (which he strongly advocated and advocates): “you will have a change in the situation facing that [car] industry, and you are going to have to run it down. It will be in your interests to do it, just as in the same way we ran down the coal and steel industries”. Leading Tory Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg has repeatedly praised Minford’s predictions.
Labour for a Socialist Europe calls on Labour: 1. To declare support for industrial action by Ford workers, on the lines of the April Unite-GMB decision. 2. To pledge that a new Labour government will take the site into public ownership and redevelop it with good, green jobs making electric or other low-carbon-emission engines 3. To highlight this new evidence of the slash-and-burn economic impact of Brexit, and to take a firm stand for “Remain and Transform”.