The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

France:
The Closing of Ford-Blanquefort and Class Politics

Apr 18, 2019

The following article is taken from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle) Issue #199, May 2019, the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group active in France.

The closing of the Ford transmission factory in Blanquefort, a small town near Bordeaux, is expected to be finalized at some point in 2019. It has had a certain impact on France. The media has reported each new twist and turn coming from both Ford and the government. In this context, officials of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), like Philippe Poutou, developed and defended for months the CGT’s policy in response to the plant closing. Poutou was the presidential candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). Whatever reservations that certain NPA militants might have had, the party has represented Poutou’s policies in its press and on its website. And it is this policy which we would like to discuss here.

It is not the fact that the plant closing could have been stopped which we are discussing. This was not within the reach of the workers and militants there.

We are discussing the comrades of the NPA’s approach and the objectives which they proposed to the workers in the fight against Ford, since they reveal fundamental differences between our respective organizations.

Lutte Ouvrière has no militants in this factory. We are therefore not in a situation where we can compare our respective policies on the ground, defending them in front of all of the workers there. Nevertheless, what has been publicly put forward shows two different strategies, and it is necessary for worker militants to understand this.

It is these two strategies which we would like to compare, not in the spirit of polemic, but to arm worker militants for the future.

Ford Workers Faced with the Decision to Close the Plant

Struggles against plant closings and layoffs are difficult fights. Insofar as they remain limited to one company, they play out within the framework of an unfavorable relationship of forces for the workers, on the terms and schedule laid out by the bosses of the company in question. The workers know this. This is what can cause them to hesitate to take part in a fight in which they cannot win the full victory of preventing the plant closing.

The context of the plant closing of Blanquefort was particularly difficult for the workers. It meant a few hundred workers challenging the policy of a multinational corporation with tens of thousands of employees. Ford’s decision-making center is thousands of miles away in Detroit. This also allowed the French government to play a shady role, since Ford is not one of the protected companies that it supports.

Ford had already wanted to get rid of its Blanquefort factory back in 2011. A supposed buyer, HZ Holding, and its partner, Johann Hay, presented themselves and took the subsidies which the government and local politicians had graciously offered them. The buyer then made off with the money, forcing Ford to take back the entire factory.

In February 2018, Ford announced that it intended to get rid of the site and that it was looking for a buyer. It planned 850 layoffs, not to speak of the job cuts brought on by the plant closing. And so, there was an urgent problem for the workers and militants: What to do? How to react? What to demand? What to try and organize around? For what goals? Based on what principles?

It was in this way that the CGT campaigned with the slogan “Ford must stay” and organized demonstrations based on this slogan, which received a very lukewarm response from the factory’s workers.

And on this basis, the choice of goals which Philippe Poutou and the NPA have defended seem worth challenging to us. The correctness of a policy cannot be determined from the results obtained. These also depend on the objective conditions and the choices made by the workers’ enemies, who may decide to concede nothing even in the face of a large and determined fight, carried out in the most democratic way possible, with the most correct goals.

The Choices of Which Struggle to Wage

There are two ways to approach the coming of a plant closing with massive layoffs.

There is that of the leaders of the union federations, totally integrated into the capitalist system, who raise the banner of defending “our industry,” who are more saddened by the “loss of expertise” than of jobs, who lament the disappearance of “our industrial base”—in short, who reason like the best defenders of existing capitalist exploitation. This leads them to say to the workers: “We must prove that this factory is profitable.” They do this instead of putting a system on trial which rejects those whom it has fiercely exploited by throwing them into poverty all in one day, by this act giving the workers a moral justification to fight to save their skins. These top union leaders tie workers to the choices of their current or future bosses. And they demolish their consciousness of belonging to a class whose interests are opposed to those of the capitalists. The worst, as it were, is that this policy of capitulation boasts of “effectiveness,” even though the bosses have little use for advice. But those who give the advice know this better than anyone.

Or there is the choice to stay on the terrain of class struggle, which means to take stock of the situation without embellishing it, laying bare the insatiable thirst for profit of these giant capitalist corporations and the complicity of governments. And it means saying to one’s fellow workers that the only thing that counts is to fight to save our skins as much as we can, and that we will only get what we can wrest from the companies. But we will do this together by remaining united in struggle until the end, even if this leads us to isolate ourselves from those in the world of union politics, who are not our friends. Our allies must be the other workers. Certainly, this path may be difficult. But making workers the masters of their own fate is the only way that they can emerge from the conflict strengthened.

The CGT’s First Slogans

First of all, for months before the end of the summer of 2018, the CGT at Ford put forward the slogan of: “Ford must keep the factory!” Certainly! But how to convince Ford to reverse its decisions, when the plant closing was part of a Europe-wide restructuring plan? This first objective gave rise to many objections among the workers. They remained confused: what independent means of action, on their own account, could they use to persuade Ford to keep open this factory which the auto company had wanted to get rid of for years? In a leaflet published on June 11, 2018, the CGT wrote:

“For us, what is certain is that we are not going to give up on the matter. Nothing will replace our jobs. No severance bonus would be enough. And we are especially not going to believe Ford as it announces a ‘good’ layoff plan; this means nothing, above all when it comes from managers who have never stopped lying, who have never held to their agreements. We have learned by experience that the best way to be fooled is to let things happen. And so, we say clearly that, even now, it is time for resistance, for challenging Ford’s decisions, for refusing the perspective of layoffs and closing. … There is no replacement for the jobs we have, and we must defend them hardily. It is better to realize this now before it becomes too late. Those who tell us that we must move on, that we can get big severance pay-outs, are mocking us. We are well aware that many no longer believe this. We may even appear to be utopians, but in fact we are realists. If there were hundreds of us in this fight, Ford would not be so calm, and the government would be forced to get off its rear end. Things would not happen like this.” 1

The Battle for Punch Powerglide to Acquire the Plant and its Consequences

At the end of the summer of 2018, there was a radical shift in the goals of the Blanquefort union leadership. The slogan of Ford continuing to operate the factory was buried. Despite the disastrous episode of the offer to acquire the plant in 2011, what these union leaders decided was necessary was to find a buyer, namely the French transmissions manufacturer Punch Powerglide. This new buyer was presented by the union leadership as the only solution to save the factory. It was a “solution” which was enthusiastically supported by the government and by local politicians. Fifteen million euros worth of central and regional governmental assistance were to end up in the pockets of Punch, but most of its operations would be guaranteed by orders from Ford, which offered this company the opportunity to get rich quick without spending a dime. And so, the workers found themselves reduced to becoming spectators whose well-being could only be assured by another boss, but not by themselves.

Certainly, in these circumstances of plant closings or mass layoffs, and even less than in other workers’ struggles, there is no magic slogan or demand which allows militants to respond to the workers’ hopes and expectations. But the most important thing is that, faced with such a situation, the difficulties, uncertainties, and problems are submitted to a frank and direct discussion of the workers, and that it is they and they alone who choose the demands and actions. The most important thing is that the workers feel they are the absolute masters of the decisions. This can require times for discussion which vary a great deal, sometimes with a very brief debate and sometimes with one that lasts for months. And it is when this discussion is fully developed, and only at that moment, that it will be democratically sanctioned by assemblies of the workforce and that the decision will then be put into practice. This is the only way that allows workers to overcome the hardships they will face during their fight, by standing together each time and remaining united shoulder to shoulder. It is in this way that they can learn from their own struggle.

It can happen that workers fight only to say no to the layoffs, to express their anger, without wanting to settle on precise demands.

And yet, after having abandoned the demand that Ford continue to operate the plant (whatever one may think of it), the fact of having made it their sole objective to find a miracle buyer had consequences. Not only did this neuter any independent initiative of the Blanquefort workers in advance, but it led them into a dead end. Above all, it reinforced the idea that the fate of the workers depends on the good will of the bosses and the government; it was a message of resignation for all of the workers who were following this conflict.

The following is what Philippe Poutou wrote to justify this new decision:

A Buyer to Save the Factory?

“This was all the more complicated in that the weak chance of saving the factory would take place through an unreliable process of selling the plant, with only rare examples of success. And Punch, the only candidate to acquire the plant, did not inspire much confidence. It revealed that it had few scruples about social rights, challenging our wages and work hours as a condition of the acquisition.

“This would help Ford in denigrating the possibility of selling the plant and in provoking even more suspicion among our co-workers, and therefore in reinforcing the idea that it would be better to close the factory to take the severance bonus. The Ford bosses would incidentally do a great deal to pit the workers against each other, the older against the younger, those who want to absolutely go elsewhere and those who want to save their jobs. And to encourage these tensions, the bosses would work to divide the co-workers into those who no longer want to produce and the others. The smallest conflict would be to Ford’s advantage, since it would weaken the group and its ties of solidarity all the more.” 2

The plan to close Ford-Blanquefort was part of Ford’s plan to cut 5,000 jobs in Europe in order to increase its “competitiveness.”

With the union leaders’ choice to look for a buyer, the Ford workers, not to speak of other workers, found themselves excluded from the stakes of the fight. Their fate was never pushed to the forefront as a cause in and of itself, but only as an indirect result of other decisions: those of the bosses, those of Ford, those of the supposed buyer Punch, and those of the government. It was incidentally granted, and accepted by the union negotiators, that this acquisition plan from Punch would only concern a portion of the factory’s workers, with more than half being laid off by Ford (of course, mostly within the framework of an early retirement system that Ford proposed). And in this way, the workers were divided into 2 categories. Worse still, the union leaders agreed in advance that the buyer could cut workers’ compensatory time, freeze wages, and institute an increased flexibility in the hours of work. The union officials thus found it acceptable for the workers to make sacrifices to allow this eventual boss to prosper. It was not the fate of the laid-off workers that was the central point at issue, but the “pursuit of activity.”

This framework changed over time, as it gradually become apparent that Ford did not want go forward with the second acquisition plan. After this plan failed, the union leaders ended up demanding that the government ensure even a very partial resumption of production, one still accompanied by laying off the big majority of the plant’s workers, according to Philippe Poutou’s repeated declarations.

Not only did the choice of this strategy not condemn the functioning of capitalism, but it tended to say that there was no option beyond it. Even if the struggle could not allow workers to reverse the relationship of forces, it is important for the workers to understand what is happening to them and to reinforce their class consciousness.

Did an Alternative Exist?

It is the big capitalist companies and their handful of shareholders who rule the world and who decide to eliminate the activity of a town or a region at the stroke of a pen. And as far as Ford is concerned, the attack on the Blanquefort workers is just one part of a plan that affects all of Europe.

In order to be understood by other workers, and above all by other Ford workers, the Blanquefort workers must tell them that all Ford (and other) workers have the same interests, since it is the policy of the bosses’ aggression against the working class which is at stake, and it is this that we are trying to resist. Each step back that Ford and other potential bosses are forced to take would be a point scored for all workers. But how can we make this idea understood if, at the same time, we are fighting to find a buyer, which is to say, another boss? Whether we like it or not, we end up echoing the policy of the top union leadership, which is not embarrassed to declare that “this factory is just as profitable as the others, if not more,” and place itself in the framework which the capitalists prefer, that of competition between workers. And of course, they do not have the slightest chance of changing anything about the decisions of the bosses, who know better than anyone else what is good for them.

An Unusual Common Front with the Declared Enemies of the Workers

Placing everything in the hands of the buyer, namely Punch, amounts to continuing the same policy with another master. In fact, it means taking responsibility for what the CGT at Ford had itself condemned from the disastrous experience of 2011 up until the summer of 2018.

This strategy, chosen by Philippe Poutou and his comrades, consisted of saying and repeating for months that the Ford workers’ fate was not in their own hands, but in those of the government and of a boss who would agree to acquire the plant, even if only with a part of its workers. This was not a question of workers with their backs to the wall, at the end of a struggle ending in defeat. It is a matter of what Philippe Poutou had defended as the sole objective until that alternative ceased to be an option. The work of the union leaders has consisted of defending the acquisition offer from the bosses of Punch all the way through, side by side with the government.

This affair therefore became an affair of the “union specialists,” who ended up with the Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, and local politicians, all open and relentless defenders of the capitalist system. From that point on, the conflict totally escaped the workers, whose role was reduced to giving their support to one boss or another.

In an interview on the radio channel France Inter on February 28, 2019, the journalist Léa Salamé pointed out this common front to Philippe Poutou, noting the convergence between the Minister and himself. Not only did Poutou not take offense at this, but he confirmed it, demanding only that his partner be more firm.

After the Failure of the Acquisition, Which Path to Take?

Once the acquisition offer which had been so hoped for was tossed out, Philippe Poutou still affirmed that: “This factory must be saved, in order to preserve the jobs concerned in the whole region.” Poutou’s recurring theme remained the same: “There must be production.” For him, one thing alone mattered: “The public authorities must take control so that after [the closing], there is production.” All of these declarations could have been spoken by any left- or right-wing politician, just as they do with each new plant closing or mass layoff.

Incidentally, it is worth looking at how, according to the newspaper La Tribune, Philippe Poutou ended his interviews on March 20, 2019, standing in between the Ford-Blanquefort union leaders, the Minister of the Economy, and local politicians:

“We have obtained the minimum of what we were hoping for, since the idea is to work towards the re-industrialization of the site and not towards its revitalization. We have the elected officials we need to launch this working group and to go through to the end of the process. We have been pleasantly surprised by the positions expressed by Nicolas Florian [the new mayor of Bordeaux] and Patrick Bobet [the president of the Bordeaux metropolitan area], who are favorable to an agreement that would compel Ford to respect much more than what has been proposed until now. They have demonstrated firmness, and this will be needed for the 20 million euros announced by the auto maker to be truly useful.”

Twenty million euros: this barely represents more than six months of wages for the 850 Ford-Blanquefort workers!

This is where the strategic decisions of the union leaders have led: placing themselves within the framework of the big union organizations, which pretend to play the role of advisors, but who will become the ultimate defenders of the capitalist system in the event of a social or political crisis.

Overthrowing Capitalism or Fixing It?

In order to illustrate the downward spiral to which these political choices lead, the best thing to do is still to listen to the words of Philippe Poutou:

“In the end, we are not abandoning all hope of preventing the factory’s disappearance. We are trying to push the central and local governments to acquire from Ford, in one way or another, the land, building, and machines, in order to restart production there, saving several hundred jobs in this way.

The Defense of Jobs is Political

“The problem of defending jobs, both direct and indirect, is a political problem involving an intervention of the public authorities against the destructive logic of the private sector. It means having an industrial strategy, taking the means of production in hand in order to perform socially useful activities responding to environmental needs. This supposes a confrontation with the multinational corporations, saying no to their unchecked power and impunity. At minimum, it requires a change in the laws to requisition and take back the hijacked public funds.

There is still a long road to travel, since during the first meetings of the working group for the re-industrialization of the factory, both the local governments and the Ministry of the Economy still remain quite timid in the face of Ford, which still decides everything. But it isn’t over.” 3

In what sense can such declarations reinforce workers’ class consciousness? On the contrary: they reinforce the illusion, which is widely shared by many workers who are themselves cornered, that the solution can only come from the bourgeois state and from a “good” capitalist boss.

To Defend the Ideas of Class Struggle Now and Forever

If it is important in each fight against layoffs to demonstrate to the workers that confronting the schemes of the bosses or the government is always better than surrendering without a fight, it is still more important that the workers feel that the struggle is their own. Each victory won by the workers themselves, no matter how limited, is a victory won for all workers. And this is how the working class can emerge reinforced from a fight which the bureaucrats write off as a lost cause.

No matter how hard the struggles may have been, for example, of the PSA Peugeot Citroën workers in Aulnay-sous-Bois in 2012–2013, of the Continental workers in 2009, or of the Chausson workers in Creil from 1992 to 1996, the workers were unable to fundamentally defeat the plans of such industrial giants. Even so, not only did the workers of these companies come out strengthened after their fights, but well beyond that, each of these struggles in their own way reinforced the morale of at least a section of the working class. Of course, this was due to their radicalness and not to the results obtained, but it also resulted just as much from the way in which these fights were led: by the workers themselves.

In each conflict, it is a question of defending the basic ideas of the workers’ movement, the values which generations of workers have defended. First of all, it means reminding the workers that they are the victims of the thirst for profits of a class, the capitalist class, and that these capitalists might be called Ford, Renault, Peugeot, Mercedes, or Toyota.

We must affirm:

They defend their profits, while we, the workers, have every right, after having been exploited, to demand our right to life, to our wages, and to the time we need, and this with or without work! In this fight, we are all united in the face of our boss, of all the bosses, and of the government that serves them.

Whatever we win will not be given automatically, but it will be for our common benefit, which we can only win through our struggles. We take the solemn oath to fight for all, to assure that each one of us has their resources, since this is all we have to live on.

As for the demands and means of struggle, it is you and you alone who will decide them.

We must make all necessary effort to convince of these ideas the workers who have been pushed to the point of making a fight. At the beginning, they may not be ready to agree with them. But we must confidently discuss the ideas so that they will be in a position to make this choice. And experience shows that this can even give them enthusiasm. Even if the struggle was difficult to begin at Ford, it was possible to hold fast to this language in order to place the fight on a basis which was the complete opposite of what those who led it chose. It is this language which can naturally lead the workers not only to make their decisions collectively, in a general assembly, but also to create a new leadership body, a democratically-elected strike committee that concretely incarnates their will.

It is with this language, and above all in fighting for this perspective, that a revolutionary communist worker militant can, even in a defensive battle limited to a single idea, work towards reinforcing the workers’ class consciousness by showing that they are not alone.

One could even add:

We are not alone. Our enemies are rich and powerful: the big bosses, these multinational corporations, and their governmental lackeys. But as for us, we have millions, hundreds of millions, of potential allies: our brothers in exploitation, the Ford workers in Germany and the United States who suffer from the same ills as us and whom we are going to address to say loud and clear that we are not in competition with them, but engaged in the same fight against the same boss. And then, beyond this, all workers are our brothers in struggle, our whole class which is enraged to endure the dictatorship of capitalism and these governments, no matter what labels they wear. And, today or tomorrow, this struggle will connect us and will offer us the true solution to our problems. While we wait for this, we are going to fight to save each one of our skins, no exceptions. And we are ready to pursue this fight for as long as you are ready to carry it out. It is you who will decide this, and it will be the struggle of all of us, led by us all.

Beyond the concrete circumstances of each fight, the essential preoccupation of a revolutionary worker militant is to be attentive to all possible steps forward, no matter how modest they may be. But one must stay on course and stick to one’s principles. They remain the tokens of true successes in the rise in the consciousness of our class. We must not abandon them by tailing after the reformist apparatuses nor for any other reason. This would mean subordinating the workers to the illusions inspired by the bourgeoisie, precisely at the moment when, by taking part in a fight, they have need of perspectives.

Footnotes

[1] CGT tract of June 11, 2018, online at the CGT Ford’s website.

[2] Philippe Poutou, “Ford Blanquefort: It’s Not Over!” L’Anticapitaliste, no. 457, January 5, 2019.

[3] Poutou, “Ford-Blanquefort: The War Lost, There Are Still Battles to Wage,” which appeared in the NPA’s weekly newspaper, L’Anticapitaliste, on March 28, 2019.