The sharp increase in oil prices, and now the credit crunch, has led to sales of large cars and people-carriers falling by 30% in Europe. SUV sales have fallen by 45%.
The industry giants have responded to the crisis with massive layoffs. Volkswagen, for example, has announced 25,000 job losses; Rolls Royce, Peugeot and Chrysler are also making swingeing cuts. The first instinct of most socialists will be to defend workers' jobs; that instinct is correct, but the situation calls for a far more thoroughgoing response that isn't limited to defending the pre-crisis status quo.
attacks on workers
Job cuts are not the only means by which car industry bosses are forcing workers to bear the brunt of the crisis. Some car workers in Britain are facing a four-day week as bosses scale down production to cut costs, and pension schemes have also been attacked.
Management are using the tried-and-tested capitalist tool of threatening to outsource production abroad in order to ‘persuade’ workers to accept these attacks.
The cuts packages proposed (and in many places, such as Nissan's Sunderland plant and Ford plants in Dagenham, Halewood and Southampton, already implemented) illustrate how capitalist bosses force workers to pay for an industrial crisis that the bosses themselves have created. In the car industry they over-produced vehicles whose sales would clearly be hit by rising oil prices.
Here is a basic lesson about capitalist economic functioning: workers both create profits for bosses, and are forced to pay the price for their bosses' profligacy. The obscenity of this situation is illustrated by the fact that the 2007 salary of the top seven executives at Ford would have been enough to retool the entire Southampton plant.
There has already been some resistance to these measures: in July, workers at the Visteon plant at Swansea forced a company buying out the plant to back down on their plans to cut terms and conditions following the takeover. In Southampton workers walked out over pay and the threatened outsourcing of Ford Transit production from the city.
Unite, the main union organising in the industry, has been fairly consistent in opposing cuts and outsourcing. However, it has failed to provide anything approaching a comprehensive strategy of resistance or an alternative vision for the future of the industry. Their perspective is firmly rooted in a concession/bargaining model of trade unionism – that is, they accept capitalist control over how the industry is organised and merely attempt to mitigate the impact of the bosses' plans on the workforce.
wider political answers
Rank-and-file militants, some linked to the Socialist Party, have articulated a different perspective. They have rightly identified that unions must be prepared to use any means necessary to resist cuts and closures, including occupations of threatened workplaces. They have also raised the key question of control of the industry, demanding the nationalisation of companies like Ford, under workers' control.
This demand is correct, but it is obvious that no government that could conceivably come to power under current conditions (that is, a government of one or several of the pro-capitalist parties) would ever implement any of these measures.
In our agitation around the capitalist crisis, the AWL has emphasised the need for the labour movement not only to fight for reactive demands but to organise itself to bid for power and form a workers' government.
In situations like that currently taking place in the car industry, we need a programme that deals with the question not just of how individual industries are managed, but of how the whole of society is managed. We need a strategy for mobilising workers to resist attempts by bosses to make workers pay for the crisis.