'New' workers try old tactics

Growing sense of grievance sees return of 70s-style militancy
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The Independent Online

Ford workers are far more docile than they were in the 1970s, but there are indications that over the last year they have felt increasingly aggrieved.

The 22,000 manual workers - down from 50,000 around 25 years ago - have seen production lines speeding and profitability improving. They now want a share of the changing fortunes of the company which posted a pounds 25m pre- tax profit in 1994 compared with a pounds 92m loss the previous year.

As one union official put it: "Higher productivity is not a theoretical calculation to my members. They have seen the line speeding up and they are sweating blood."

The typical Ford worker has more to lose from the kind of wildcat action staged within the last 48 hours than his predecessor of the 1970s. The average age of employees has also increased from late 20s to late 30s, and so they have greater commitments. With high unemployment, people are hanging on to their jobs for longer.

A far greater proportion are burdened with mortgage payments, many will be saving to go the United States on holiday rather than the Costa Brava, and others will be committed to regular monthly payments for household electronic equipment.

While in the Seventies, the unskilled and semi-skilled production line workers, drove ageing cars, many more now take advantage of the 20 per cent in-house discount to buy new Ford vehicles.

The sense of community and solidarity is far more subdued than in the 70s. Many of the employees in Dagenham, for instance, which make up around 40 per cent of the total workforce, now live some way away from the factory. Most used to live in the sprawling council estates surrounding the plant.

Their standard of living has improved - largely through the greater availability of consumer goods, although their relative position in the pay league has remained steady. Car workers have always been near the top for production workers.

The proportion of union membership has hardly changed in the last quarter of a century. The Transport and General Workers' Union claims 100 per cent membership among line workers and even management concedes a proportion in excess of 90 per cent.

Perhaps more worrying for the Government than the present bout of pay militancy is that an increasing number of them seem to be deserting the Conservative Party for Tony Blair's new Labour.