Workers occupying two plants and picketing a third closed this week by Visteon, the former supply arm of Ford Motor, are threatening to make Ford’s UK operations the next target of their anger.
Banners spray-painted with the words “Ford sellout” and “Ford and Visteon pay up!” deck the gates of Visteon’s plant in Enfield, which has been occupied by up to 40 workers at a time since Wednesday.
The sit-ins, which made national news bulletins this week in spite the Group of 20 summit, are an embarrassment to Ford at a time when it is focused on surviving an industry crisis that has forced competitors General Motors and Chrysler to rely on emergency state aid.
John Fleming, Ford’s head of European operations, discussed the stand-off on Friday with Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the Unite union, which is seeking meetings with Visteon’s senior US management.
Workers in Enfield say they were given less than an hour’s notice on Tuesday and asked to clear their lockers when KPMG, Visteon’s UK administrators, said the unit was shutting. It has lost £669m since its split from Ford in 2000.
“They just picked us up and threw us in the bin,” said Robert Lombardi, one of the dismissed employees in Enfield, who sported a growth of stubble attesting to his time camping out at the plant. He and fellow protesters have been sleeping on polystyrene or the floor.
The heating was turned off when administrators arrived on Tuesday and workers’ relatives and well-wishers were handing them food, cups and other supplies over the fence yesterday. KPMG declined a request that the Financial Times be allowed to enter the plant.
About 10 men were standing and greeting passers-by from the roof, from which an effigy wearing an orange Visteon vest was hanging, below the banner “Ford terms”. The bankrupt supplier’s dismissed employees are demanding the same redundancy payments due to Ford employees, which they claim they were promised when Visteon was spun off nine years ago.
Clare Roach, 38, and her husband David, 50, have worked for Ford and Visteon for a combined 47 years. Mr Roach was two years short of qualifying for a pension. “All I know is Ford,” said Ms Roach, talking to her husband through the fence on a trip to the plant from home, where she is looking after their two children.
Workers at Visteon’s Belfast plant never left the premises when given notice on Tuesday. In Enfield they began the sit-in after hearing the news, and in Basildon they are picketing outside.
Ford has ruled out a bailout of Visteon in the US, where it has received a “going concern” notice from its auditors. GM has had to pump more than $11bn (£7.4bn) into its main supplier, Delphi, since it filed for bankruptcy in 2005.
Ford says Visteon UK wrote contracts mirroring its own after the split but that it has no obligation to Visteon workers. “Ford isn’t in a position to step in and aid insolvent suppliers,” said a spokesman, Oliver Rowe.
Given Visteon’s financial straits, however, Ford makes an easier target for protest, and it is a larger one. It has five plants in the UK, where Unite says it will be seeking meetings with Ford shop stewards next week.
“We can picket Ford factories, we can picket Ford retail outlets,” said Roger Maddison, Unite’s national officer for the automotive industry. “If necessary, we will take this out on Ford.”
KPMG secured a court order this week to clear the occupiers out in Enfield, but it has not enforced it. Some dismissed workers have been coming and going in shifts, suggesting that the protest might drag on.
In a grim jobs market, the occupiers have time on their hands. “There are 200 people applying for any decent job,” said Ms Roach, who has been scouring job sites for alternative work.
Meanwhile the protesters will remain “as long as it takes”, said Mr Lombardi.
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