Fired Visteon Automotive Workers Occupy United Kingdom Factories, 2009.

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Timing
Time Period:  
31 March
2009
to
18 May
2009
Location and Goals
Country: 
United Kingdom
Country: 
Northern Ireland
Location City/State/Province: 
Belfast, Northern Ireland; Enfield, England; Basildon, England
Location Description: 
Visteon Factories
Goals: 
All occupying workers demanded larger compensations after being fired. Belfast workers additionally demanded Visteon reopen the closed factory.
 

Visteon is a global automotive company that spun off from Ford Motor Company in June 2000. In the U.K., during this transition period, Ford and the trade union Unite made a deal to guarantee that all former Ford employees – now Visteon workers – would keep the same wage and pension conditions. However, Visteon placed all newly hired employees under inferior contracts.

On 31 March 2009, after running an accumulating loss of £669 million, Visteon could not pay the money owed and declared insolvency; the company was put into receivership – its assets were held by a third party. Subsequently, Visteon announced the closure of three factories in the U.K. – Belfast (Northern Ireland), Enfield (north London), and Basildon (England) – firing 610 workers with less than one hour notice at the end of a work day. Visteon did not pay any wages for the workers’ final shift and offered no guarantees regarding severance or pensions payments.

Workers in Belfast responded by occupying the factory on the same day. They scuffled with security guards and managed to take control of the building within two hours. Two administrators from KPMG, the accountancy firm administering the receivership of Visteon, were present during the occupation. When they refused to leave, the workers locked them in a portakabin for 36 hours. The workers also locked up some managers’ cars at the time of the occupation.

The occupation continued in Belfast as workers camped through the night and the next day, while workers in Basildon and Enfield – influenced by the actions of their counterparts in Belfast – staged similar occupations at their factories.

In Basildon, the workers trashed the site offices when they got to know that the plant contained no stock or machinery of much value to the company. A group of riot police responded to this action. After the police issued a dispersal order, the protesters left the factory but continued picketing outside of the plant.

In Enfield, the workers confronted security guards after the guards refused to allow the workers to enter and collect their belongings from lockers. The protesters waited outside for 40 minutes before they scuffled with the guards and entered the plant through an unlocked gate. About 100 workers took part in the occupation of the paint shop and roof.

On the night of 1 April, the Enfield police brought a court order that required the workers to leave, but the occupiers refused and claimed that the order held no legal validity. The protesters determined to continue camping at the factory until Visteon gave them adequate severance packages. The police remained present during the occupation but did not take any actions to remove the workers from the plant site.

Davy McMurray and other leaders of the trade union Unite visited workers in Enfield and said that they were shocked that Visteon informed workers of the closure with only minutes notice. McMurray promised that the union would “do anything it can to get Ford to the negotiating table,” citing that “Resolve is as strong as ever.” The union, along with labor rights activists, also offered legal advice, as most workers did not have any experience dealing with complicated legal matters regarding squatting. The union and workers in Enfield also distributed thousands of leaflets to locals, but they received little response, as most of the protesters, who commuted from London and its surrounding areas, did not have strong links with the local community.

In Belfast, Alex Attwood, then-Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland, and city councilor Tim Attwood expressed their support for the workers and requested urgent meetings with then-Enterprise Minister and now First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster and Invest Northern Ireland (a regional economic development organization). Gerry Adams, West Belfast Member of the Parliament (MP) and President of Sinn Féin, also voiced his backing for the occupation.

The action in Belfast received much more support from the local community, as many demonstrators lived very close to the factory and had strong connections with the locals, standing in solidarity with many residents over other local issues over the years. Throughout the time of the occupation, local shops and families donated food and other practical resources to the protesters. The Belfast city government also supported the workers’ cause and demanded the factory be reopened.

At the same time, the workers targeted Ford – Visteon’s largest shareholder and their previous employer. They traveled to Ford’s largest plant in the U.K. in Dagenham (east London) and picketed at the entrance to the factory, distributing leaflets to Ford workers and asking for their support.

On 2 April, Ford responded by announcing that the company would not step into the dispute. A spokesperson for Ford said that the workers were transferred to Visteon in 2000: “The door was open for interested employees to come back, and over 550 returned to Ford in the nine years that have passed.” He also remarked that the battle was “one between [the workers] and their employer, not the previous employer.”

Yet, four days later, Ford agreed to meet with the union Unite to discuss compensation for the laid-off Visteon workers. Derek Simpson, Unite’s joint general secretary, met with John Fleming, Ford’s European chairman, to urge the carmaker to “do the right thing” and help the workers. Simpson said that Ford had a moral obligation to the workers, while Visteon had a contractual obligation. However, according to an employment and pensions lawyer, Visteon was not obliged to honor the contractual agreements with workers due to insolvency, and the workers would be “at the bottom of the list for payment” if they filed claims against the company.

The union leaders and chief conveners flew to New York in the same week to meet with managers of Visteon and discuss possible compensations, but they reached no agreements. Meanwhile, the occupations and demonstrations at the three Visteon factories continued. In Enfield, about 100 workers camped outside of the plant every day, while some other demonstrators traveled to the Ford’s factory in Dagenham on a daily basis to picket and gather support from their counterparts at Ford. Protesters in Belfast staged a sit-in at the plant and picketed Ford showrooms. Union representative John Maguire said that the workers remained determined to continue their protests until an adequate deal was reached and that the union continued to hold talks with Ford.

On 14 April, after hearing from a Unite speaker about the workers’ campaign against Visteon, teachers, who were attending the National Union of Teachers’ national conference in Cardiff (Wales), assembled outside the venue and organized a picket in the city. Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the NUT, said that “The NUT supports these workers in their demands for fair treatment” and that the teachers, standing in solidarity with the Visteon workers, demanded Ford reopen the plants or honor their severance agreements.

The union officials continued to negotiate with Visteon executives on 15 April, as the carmaker bosses flew from New York to the U.K. Within the following two weeks, they struck a deal. Though the deal did not settle on workers’ pension conditions, it offered substantially improved severance payments and better compensations for the workers.

On 4 May, the Visteon workers voted – Enfield: 178 to 5, Basildon: 159 to 0, Belfast: 147 to 34 – to accept the deal. Though some workers felt that the payoff from Visteon was not fair, compared to the one they got when Ford employed them, Unite spokesman Roger Madison said that what the workers wanted was “unrealistic” and argued that the deal was already “10 times what [Visteon] offered originally.” Madison remarked that the union had done its best, but unfortunately, it was not able to keep the workers’ jobs. She also praised the workers’ determination “to lock themselves in a plant for nearly a month” and credited the occupiers that the union was only able to reach the enhanced offer because of the actions taken.

The workers ended their occupations of the plants on 18 May, marking the end of a 48-day campaign over the closure of Visteon in the U.K.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Anon. 2009. “A Post-Fordist struggle: Report & reflections on the UK Ford-Visteon dispute 2009.” Alphabethreat.co.uk. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20150209002627/http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/visteon.html).

Cosgrove, Sarah. 2009 “Visteon protest finally ends.” 18 May 2009. Enfield Independent. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (https://web.archive.org/web/20170304183156/http://www.enfieldindependent.co.uk/news/4377641.Visteon_protest_finally_ends_with_a_bittersweet_march_to_the_pub/).

Robinson, Sadie. 2009. “A day in occupation: report from Visteon's Enfield plant.” Socialist Worker. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20170418014704/https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/17220/A+day+in+occupation:+report+from+Visteons+Enfield+plant).

O’Flynn, Daniel. 2009. “Occupations at UK Visteon plants continue despite legal threats.” 8 April 2009. World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20151019085355/https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2009/04/vist-a08.html).

Anon. 2009. “Report from the Belfast Visteon occupation.” 12 April 2009. Libcom.org. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150922202833/http://libcom.org/news/report-belfast-visteon-occupation-12042009).

McDowell, Jamie. 2009. “Leaked papers reveal Visteon 2001 closure plan.” 24 April 2009. Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/news/leaked-papers-reveal-visteon-2001-closure-plan-28476747.html).

Anon. 2009. “Teachers support Visteon workers with Cardiff picket.” 29 March 2009. WalesOnline. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20170418015134/http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/teachers-support-visteon-workers-cardiff-2111493).

Logan, Guy. 2009. “Former Visteon car plant staff could end up with redundancy deal.” 15 April 2009. PersonnelToday. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20170418015254/http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/former-visteon-car-plant-staff-could-end-up-with-redundancy-deal/).

Baker, Kat. 2009. “Ford meets Visteon workers’ union Unite to discuss compensation.” 6 April 2009. PersonnelToday. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20170418015354/http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/ford-meets-visteon-workers-union-unite-to-discuss-compensation/).

Peacock, Lousia. 2009. “Sacked Belfast car workers continue sit-in.” 2 April 2009. PersonnelToday. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20170418015602/http://www.personneltoday.com/hr/sacked-belfast-car-workers-continue-sit-in/).

Anon. 2009. “Belfast Ford/Visteon workers vote to accept deal.” 3 May 2009. Libcom.org. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20161203170600/http://libcom.org/news/belfast-fordvisteon-workers-vote-accept-deal-03052009).

Anon. 2009. “The struggle at Visteon, the union and the development of class consciousness, 2009.” 9 June 2009. Libcom.org. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150909074754/https://libcom.org/history/struggle-visteon-union-development-class-consciousness-2009).

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Hopkins, Kathryn. 2009. “Visteon workers continue factory sit-in.” 2 April 2009. The Guardian. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20160927122317/https://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/apr/02/visteon-enfield-ford-protest).

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Anon. 2009. “Devastated Visteon staff stage sit-in as 200 jobs go in factory shutdown.” 1 April 2009. Independent. Retrieved 12 March 2017 (http://web.archive.org/web/20170418020246/http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/devastated-visteon-staff-stage-sit-in-as-200-jobs-go-in-factory-shutdown-1659449.html).

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Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Yin Xiao and Hayden Dahm, 16/04/2017