Eamonn McCann: Why Visteon workers’ refusal to budge puts the focus on Ford


Administrators KPMG will tomorrow morning ask the High Court in Belfast to order the Visteon workers out of the factory at Finaghy Road North which they have been occupying for the past month.

The hearing, and the response of the 200 men and women sitting in, will be followed closely by workers across the North and beyond, not least at Nortel, Bombardier, Nu-Track, Translink, NCP, etc, and throughout the public service, where employees are being bombarded with warnings that they have no option but to take what’s coming and accept job losses and worsening conditions.

The economic forces behind the destruction of local jobs and conditions are vast, global, far out of reach, runs the propaganda. Fighting back is not an option. Resistance is futile.

But, in fact, there has been nothing impersonal or elemental about the process which led to Belfast workers on March 31 being given 20 minutes’ notice that they were being dumped on to the dole and told there was no money to fund their redundancy entitlements and that they might have to whistle for the pensions they’d paid into.

The plan to sack the workers at Visteon UK’s plants in Belfast, Enfield and Basildon was hatched in January 2007. It represented the culmination of a much broader scheme drawn up by Ford in the US a decade earlier.

Ford set up Visteon Corporation in 1997 and transferred sections of its production lines to the new company. Three years later, Ford and Visteon Corporation formally separated. Visteon Corporation then sub-divided itself into around 40 companies around the world, all owned ultimately by Ford, but each in theory and in corporate law independent both of Ford and of the others.

In 2005 Ford executives at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn in Michigan announced a “fundamental” restructuring, code-named The Way Forward. One key component was a speed-up in outsourcing, forcing suppliers, including wholly-owned suppliers, to compete with each other for contracts and to aim at, in the company’s phrase, the “China Price”: the phrase requires no translation. Plants which fell behind in the race to the bottom were to be cut adrift.

It was in pursuing The Way Forward that Visteon UK ear-marked Belfast for abandonment in January 2007, when Project Protea was drawn up. At the same time, Project Kennedy prepared the closure of other UK outlets.

Project Protea called for the establishment of “duplicate sources for all the Belfast product lines by the end of 2007”. Workers were to be kept in the dark: managers directly involved were instructed to “minimise information leaks by creating isolated project teams”.

Thus the closure plan had been in secret preparation for more than two years before the Belfast workers were given 20 minutes to get out.

They were told at the time that their pension fund was in deficit. But not everybody’s pension fund, it turned out. Until last year, all Visteon UK pensions were held by Visteon UK Pensions Trustees Limited. Then, the pensions of senior employees and managers were transferred to Visteon Engineering Services Pension Trustees Limited. There is a logjam of words there.

But the key fact shines through clearly enough. It’s only the original company which finds itself in diffs. So it’s the rich wot keeps their pensions, the workers who get shafted again.

Workers had been given what they reasonably believed were cast-iron assurances on pensions when Visteon was created in 2000.

Ford executives visited the Belfast plant to deliver the assurances personally. This was vital in ensuring acceptance of the change.

A document handed to the workers declared: “For the duration of your employment with Visteon UK, your terms and conditions ... will mirror Ford conditions ... All terms and conditions, in particular pension entitlements, will be transferred to the new employment contracts.”

This should be kept in mind as Ford spokespersons insist that the company has “no moral or legal duty” to make good the pension deficit.

Trying to work out the operating relationships between the various manifestations of Visteon is a recipe for migraine. This is not an accident. Visteon UK’s accounts tell that, “The company has taken advantage of the exemption under Financial Reporting Standard 8 — Related party disclosures — not to disclose related party transactions with Visteon Corporation or any of its wholly-owned undertakings.”

Thus, we can but speculate as to the significance of the fact that, according to the administrators, Visteon UK went bust owing Visteon Corporation more than £400m.

Visteon Corporation did intervene from the US on April 16 to present leaders of the Unite union with an offer of 16 weeks’ pay per worker in return for ending the Belfast occupation.

The offer merely matched the 90 days’ redundancy consultation the workers had been entitled to anyway, and was speedily rejected.

But if the workers had done what they were told, if the factory hadn’t been occupied, Visteon Corporation would assuredly have stood aloof. There would have been no offer. The only thing which moved the situation even an inch forward was that fact that the workers had refused to move at all.

If the Visteon workers, whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s High Court proceedings, decide not to let a washer leave their factory until they have won a deal that respects their rights, they will be giving good example to workers everywhere and will be entitled to all possible support.