‘I never thought I would be a squatter’
Patrick Hayes reports from Visteon in Enfield, where sacked workers launched a surprise occupation of their factory.
On Wednesday 1 April, as anti-capitalist protesters gathered for the G20 in London, a more modest yet more positive protest was taking place in the London borough of Enfield.
On the morning of Tuesday 31 March, all of the computer systems at the Visteon plant in Enfield, which manufactures plastic components for Ford, Jaguar and Landrover, went down. The workers, numbering over 200, were then summoned to a meeting with appointed administrators KPMG, which reportedly lasted for six minutes. At the meeting, they were told that Visteon UK had gone into receivership, they were being made redundant straight away, and they had to leave the factory immediately.
The shocked workers left the plant; they could, they were told, collect their belongings in a two-hour window from 10am to 12pm the following day. One of the workers, Ron Clarke, candidly tells me: ‘They caught us with our pants down.’ That evening, the newly redundant workers spoke to each other constantly on their mobile phones. What just happened? Why aren’t our contracts being honoured? What is the union’s position? Why didn’t we see it coming? What can we do? The calls increased as news of an overnight sit-in at the Visteon plant in Belfast were confirmed (workers were treated badly there, too), and there arose ‘a feeling’, one of the workers tells me, ‘that there was something we could do’.
The following morning, workers gathered outside the factory in the nondescript, quiet industrial park by Ponders End train station, bouncing ideas around and talking in hurried tones. It became clear that the security guards were anticipating trouble, especially following the Belfast sit-in, ‘and there was no way they were going to let all the rabble in’, one of the workers said.
However, many of them had worked in the factory for decades, some for 40 years, which meant they knew ‘every inch of the place, better than our own homes’. Some workers had been security guards there and many knew of a fire exit with a ‘dodgy lock’. The lock proved to be dodgy as ever and, with the briefest pause for thought, over 100 workers seized the moment and entered the plant: they occupied the roof and a section of the plant itself.
On Saturday, the plant remained occupied. ‘Upstairs’, said a worker from East Ham, there are ‘lots who have never done anything like this before’: ‘Some women are deeply religious and some have health problems.’ But, he said, they plan to stay. One woman, who had worked at the Visteon plant for 21 years, told me one of the security guards had tried to intimidate her, but she shrugged him off: ‘This is our factory, who are you to tell me what to do?’
Their demands are modest. Many of the workers accept that the factory is unprofitable. They have seen the number of workers drop to almost a fifth of the number who worked there a few years ago; Visteon lost $372million in 2007 (1). Long before the recession, its owners had planned to restructure it. However, as one worker said, all of this has had the effect of ‘making us think we’ve got even less to lose by doing this’.
Ron Clarke addressed the assembled crowd from his tower: ‘I just want my job back.’ And then, prompting a huge cheer from the 100 workers inside, he said: ‘We all want our jobs back.’ However, everyone I spoke to said they would compromise if they were treated fairly. Rather than accepting a pitiful sum of statutory redundancy money – a mere £9,000 for those who have worked there for 40 years – they called for the terms of their original Ford contracts to be honoured. At most, they want the option to transfer their jobs to the Ford plant at nearby Dagenham.
Their hastily spray-painted banners demanding ‘Ford Terms’, ‘Ford Pay Up’ and ‘Give my daddy his money’ were clear statements of straightforward self-interest. It seems clear that if the management hadn’t taken a hardline approach – in contrast to their company’s statement of ethics (2) – then this occupation would not have happened.
The protesters were tired by Saturday, three days into their protest, with a hundred people sleeping on a factory floor with at least one man ‘who snores so bad, we’re going to have to put him on the roof’. And yet morale was quite high, bolstered by a demonstration of 300 supporters. They included various political groups, the local community, and workers from Ford and the Visteon plant in Basildon, who – due to an intervention by Essex police – failed to occupy their plant. Posted outside of the factory is a statement of ‘squatters’ rights’ signed by the workers. But no one is sure if that will hold water.
‘I never thought I would be a squatter’, jokes Paul, a young father who came to work at the Enfield plant fourteen-and-a-half years ago after finishing school. ‘But I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be, or anybody else I’d rather be squatting with.’
In Enfield, there hasn’t been a single one of the 3,600 new therapists trained by the government to treat those in need of ‘psychological help’ as a result of the recession and redundancy (3). However, the experience of the occupation has brought people closer together. As one of the workers told me, ‘[Before this] sometimes you’d say “good morning” to people and they’d mumble a bit. But since the sit-in, it’s all been “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? Are you sure?”’
An event like the protest at Visteon in Enfield does not represent the ‘green shoots’ of a new workers’ movement. But this is a positive example of people demanding something better for themselves, working together and taking things into their own hands. If the events in Enfield inspire others not to go quietly from their workplaces, that will be all to the good.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder and organiser of the IoI Current Affairs Forum.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume looked at the Lindsey Oil refinery dispute. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.
(2) Ethics and Integrity Policy, Visteon
(3) Victims of recession to get free therapy, Guardian, 8 March 2009
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