LM Archives
  7:56 pm GMT
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar

Responses to redundancy

How do you react when your job is transferred abroad? Kirk Williams talked to Hoover and Nestlé workers in both Scotland and France

'I've spent all my youth working for Hoover. I'm now 47. Joined when I was 21, that's 26 years. These days you're finished at 47.'

Spitting in the fire inside the gates of the doomed Dijon Hoover plant, Michale Joussard begins another day of protest with his wife Yvette. They are one of 35 married couples in the workforce of 500 dependent on the double wage from Hoover. A BMW speeds by. 'Bosses off to another fat lunch', spits Michale, but his words are drowned by the turbo engine.

The clamour over the transfer of jobs between Glasgow and Dijon has not been so muted. In January American giant Hoover announced the transfer of production from Dijon to its Cambuslang plant. The next week Nestlé said it would shift production to Dijon from its Scottish factory in Kinning Park. This tale of two cities has Dijon and Glasgow at war, or so it seems.

The Hoover deal included a 12-month pay freeze, temporary contracts with no sick pay or pension scheme, compulsory overtime and a £50-a-week pay cut for the night shift. French workers simply shake their heads at the deal accepted in Scotland. 'We would never have accepted pay cuts or employment with no rights.'

'Us or them'

The Hoover deal does seem to fit into a pattern. Figures released recently by the International Labour Organisation suggest that UK hourly wages are now 18 per cent lower than in France and 42 per cent lower than in Germany. British workers enjoy less job security, and work longer hours on average. Pension, redundancy and sickness benefits do not compare with France or Germany.

Some see more underhand motives. 'America has always been closer to you than us', says Mohammed Zenasmi. Above him a banner 'L'Amerique assassine la region' greets visitors to the Dijon protest.

Scots are reported as not understanding what all the fuss is about. Two French Hoover workers brought over by the BBC to meet workers in Cambuslang were disheartened at their reception. 'They didn't seem to care or think about it', said one. A Cambuslang worker keen to get into work simply said, 'it was us or them. I'm just pleased it was us'.

Meanwhile, Nestlé jobs in Kinning Park are heading for France. Union official John Glass saw the move as a sop to the French. 'I would need a lot of convincing that this is pure coincidence.' A woman worker starting the twilight shift agrees: 'this is politics, no more, no less.' At the Dijon plant they don't agree. Marie said, 'it's no swap. I'm afraid it's just about money'. The situations maybe basically similar in Scotland and France, but the responses appear to be at odds.

Are we that different? On the surface Dijon and Glasgow do seem to be worlds apart.

Dijon is promoted as the centre of Burgundy cuisine. It's an enchanting city, a mix of the medieval and the modern. The Hoover and Nestlé factories are on opposite sides of the city. Both are reached along tree-lined boulevards. Speeding along cours General de Gaulle and course du Parc, you pass chateau after chateau.

Nobody could claim to have discovered beauty in Cambuslang, the kind of town which has never seen better days. Made famous by heavy industry, it is now reliant on Hoover as its biggest employer. More than 80 per cent of the workforce live locally.

For Dijon's chateaux find Cambuslang's high-rise flats; for Dijon's 'fruits de mer' find Cambuslang's fish supper; Dijon's Burgundy and Glasgow's Buckfast. What could they have in common? A lot more than poor weather when it comes down to it.

At 10 per cent, Dijon's unemployment is catching Cambuslang on its heels. The Hoover factory is the latest casualty. Philips next to Hoover has just laid off 200. The state tobacco company, Seita, has announced the closure of its plant. Even the city's most famous product, Dijon mustard, is closing one of its local factories.

Workers in Cambuslang have suffered a similar haemorrhage of jobs. In 1981 over 6000 people walked through the gates of the Hoover plant. Today only 970 clock on. Unemployment in the town stands at 14 per cent. The slump unites the French and the Scots. Unemployment knows no language barrier.

Alain Cheviers is known as 'the black sheep', having worked at every one of the Dijon factories shedding jobs. Now it's Hoover's turn. 'Maybe I should move to Glasgow. We might beat you at rugby but you have the jobs and whisky. You're no different to us.'

It's a pleasant surprise to hear this at a time when national differences are being promoted. French politicians and newspaper editors have called for greater safeguards against 'Anglo-American companies'. In Britain politicians of the left and right unite against Maastricht and the Brussels demon. The message is: safeguard national sovereignty and national difference at all cost.

In fact you are struck at how similar ordinary people's fears, frustrations and hopes are - Scots, French or English. Strip away the language and custom and we are left with much more in common than many would like to suggest.

Who's next?

In Cambuslang and Dijon no worker I spoke to had any optimism that life for themselves or their families would get better. Whether they had a job or not, it all looked pretty grim. Two women outside the Hoover plant in Cambuslang were resigned to the deal their union had agreed, but 'if that's a good deal, then I'd like to see a bad one', said one. Both believed it was only a matter of time before a third world country made a bid for Hoover jobs: 'then it could be our turn to lose out.'

At Nestlé in Dijon one woman said: 'I feel really sorry for the Scots, but we need the jobs.' Across the city at Hoover, the seven workers who sat around the fire totalled nearly 150 years employment for the company. Now they joined the 2000 made redundant locally in three months. Back in Scotland, the last worker into Kinning Park echoed their sentiments: 'What hope for me now? I'm 52. What future do I have?' The economic slump suggests common problems whether you cook biscuits or build vacuum cleaners.

In desperate situations people are forced to accept desperate measures. But in Dijon and Glasgow many at least sense that this squalid struggle for jobs has little to do with national differences and everything to do with company policy. That is a start.

(Thanks to Louis Roche for his assistance in Paris and Dijon)

Leyland DAF workers in Lancashire and Birmingham variously blamed the Dutch, the Tories, and each other for the latest job losses. Ian Scott reports

Visitors to Leyland in Lancashire could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped back into 1977, Silver Jubilee year. Every shop window was a blaze of red, white and blue and Union Jacks. 'Don't throw away our future, save Leyland Trucks', the posters pleaded.

The receivers were called in at Leyland's Dutch parent company, DAF NV, at the start of February. On Thursday 11 February workers were told there would be a 'head count reduction' of 30 per cent. Next day, 1635 Leyland DAF employees were handed their notice.

Paul had worked at the truck factory in Leyland for 16 years: 'When I was handed my notice I was in a daze. We were just called out one by one and given a brown envelope.' His workmate Alan recalled how 'when I started as an apprentice a foreman said to me "you'll be here the rest of your working life". Now what am I going to do? There's no demand for my skills round here any more'.

At the Leyland DAF van factory in Washwood Heath, Birmingham, workers were told of their redundancy 15 minutes from the end of the shift. 'We were lined up, and those who were going were told in front of all their mates, some of us were in tears', said Shane, a 26-year old door fitter. 'I was angry and scared', says Alston, 'we were expecting something but it was still a shock when you get the sack and someone next to you escapes. Some who could see me holding the envelope with my redundancy just looked away, others came up and said how sorry they felt. It was like a funeral'.

The 20 workers attending the South Ribble borough council Leyland DAF New Start group meeting in Leyland were mystified about how the sacked workers had been chosen. 'In 32 years I have never been in trouble', said Alan who had worked in the drawing office. Paul who had worked there for 20 years was the only one sure why he had been sacked. 'I was a union convenor and those bastards were just waiting for the opportunity to get me.'

Eric, a press operator who worked for Leyland in Birmingham for 26 years, thought he had been sacked because 'they don't want old men like me. I can't work as fast'. But Alston was angry: 'I was told management decided who to sack based on absenteeism, age, attitude and time-keeping. But I have only missed four days through illness in the last 13 years and never been in trouble.' There were many similar stories as workers tried to find some personal fault to explain their situation.

The message on the posters in windows all over Leyland makes it clear that they are only concerned with the local, truck part of the company. 'Birmingham was already finished', says Harry, 'the Dutch were going to close the factory and buy Mercedes vans - everybody knew that. But our trucks are the best in the world. And you've got to look after your own first, haven't you?'.

'Dutch destroyed us'

This sentiment was shared by many in the New Start group. 'Our standards were the highest until the Dutch took over', said Paul. 'They have used our profits to keep themselves going and now they have destroyed us.' Sheila, a typist, said 'we have heard that they are very wasteful in Holland and money could have been saved there. The DAF management have let this company run down'.

In Birmingham workers marching against the threat of closure altered posters from 'Save Leyland DAF' to 'Save Leyland Vans', and carried banners saying 'Save our vans'. As far as they were concerned the Dutch and other parts of the company were responsible. Barry, a press shop worker laid the blame at the feet of the truck workers in Leyland and Glasgow: 'All our profits keep going up north where they have always made a loss.'

In the New Start group it seemed the Tories were even worse than the Dutch. Alan said, 'if I had to point the finger at the person responsible for what has happened to the economy it would be Nigel Lawson and then the rest of the Conservative Party'. Stephen an engineer thought the condemnations were a little hollow: 'Half the people in this group voted for the Tories in the last election.'

In the canteen at the truck factory in Leyland, Dave, a driver, was clear who was to blame. 'The Dutch, they bled this company. I hate them. My boss is a bloody Dutchman and he hasn't got a clue.' But Gary and Adrian, who had both been at Leyland since they left school six years ago, disagreed: 'You can't blame the Dutch for looking after their own, can you? I just wish this government was a little more like the Dutch one.' 'I hope we get bought by the yanks', said Dave, 'lots of US dollars - that's what we need'.

Workers in Leyland quickly dismissed the idea of strike action. 'If we went on strike we would be guaranteed to lose everything', said Dave. Paul summed up the mood of the New Start group: 'I was a union convenor and I voted against strike action. The vote was four to one. They all knew that if they voted for strike action then the receivers would have closed the factory immediately.'

Strike action was rejected in the Birmingham secret ballot, despite the huge show of support for it at a mass meeting. 'As we left the meeting to cast our vote, everyone was given a letter from the receivers saying that if we took any action redundancies would be immediate', recalls Alston. 'Within half an hour many of my mates had decided that they would vote against strike action.'

Look after number one

Some workers blamed other factories for voting against action. 'Leyland sold us out, if we'd been united we could have done something', said one. Brian expressed a more prevalent view: 'I didn't care about the other factories - it's every man for himself today. You've got to look after number one.'

The workers in Leyland are subdued about the future. 'If I get laid off I am going to university for three years - there's no jobs anyway', said Gary. His workmate Adrian said that if he got laid off he would 'go abroad, I can't stay here'. There was no more optimism in Birmingham. 'I'm off abroad - Britain is finished', says Shane. 'It's all right for me, I'm divorced, but for blokes with families it is going to be really hard going.'

'I almost wish they had sacked me', says Brian, 'it's so bad in the factory now. They sacked two skilled tool-makers today for refusing to do unskilled work'. 'The factory is finished', Alston added. 'What chance do I have with 45 people applying for every job in this area? And those who have a job will be working harder for less. Not much of a future is it?'

At the Leyland DAF New Start seminar the counsellor was telling them they would have to accept lower wages in any future job and travel to work out of the town. 'Here's a little saying I want you to remember. It will keep your confidence up: "What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us doesn't matter, what matters is what lies within us."' It didn't sound like much comfort.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk