Sheila Cohen, Notoriously Militant: The Story of a Union Branch at Ford Dagenham (Merlin Press, 2013), £15.95
Along the stretch of the Thames Estuary that runs from Barking and the North Circular at one end, along the A13 to Thurrock Lakeside, the Dartford Crossing and the M25 at the other, lies one of the most bizarre industrialised landscapes in the UK. Until the end of the 19th century it was a marshland, which provided the inspiration for Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Then, for nearly a century, starting just before the First World War, part of the area was used by the Ministry of Defence for tank training and as a rifle range. It’s also where much of the landfill from the City of London gets dumped. A bit further out are Tilbury Docks, Tilbury Power Station and the new London Gateway on the site of what used to be the Shell Haven oil refinery. Between the wars this wilderness became the favoured location for the Ford Motor Company to build the entire factory complex that was to become the primary base for Ford production and sales in the UK and to the rest of Europe. Company boss Edsel Ford inaugurated the Dagenham plant on 17 May 1929.
Ideally situated on the north bank of the river and with excellent road and sea links both to the rest of the UK and to Europe, Dagenham eventually became the biggest car plant in the UK, employing over 40,000 workers at its high point in the 1960s. Among the models that rolled off the assembly lines at Dagenham were the Ford Anglia, Prefect, Popular, Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac, Cortina, Capri, Granada and Fiesta. The factory was the dominant employer in this part of London for about 50 years, until a gradual dismemberment of the site began from the late 1980s onwards.
Whereas Ford was the dominant manufacturer of production cars in the UK during its first few decades, the company began to lose ground to rival manufacturers in its home territory, the US, and at the same time faced intensified worldwide competition from Korean, Japanese and European car and truck manufacturers. Ford effectively ended volume production in the UK just over a decade ago—production was halted at Halewood (Dagenham’s sister plant on Merseyside) in 2000; the assembly lines at Dagenham closed two years later, in 2002.
Nowadays only a few thousand are employed in the plant, and the devastation wrought by the closure of all but a few departments became all too evident a few years back when workers’ despondency was reflected in a terrifyingly high level of support for the British National Party. Electricity pylons march in from the Tilbury power station right through the middle of the site, which is now occupied by some remnants of production (in what’s left of the engine plant) and a few wind turbines advertising Ford’s imagined eco-friendly credentials. Thankfully, though, the important history of this important factory is not entirely forgotten. In this spirited account, written by industrial relations researcher and activist Sheila Cohen, some of the high points of the trade union history of the plant—as seen from the standpoint of those directly involved in these struggles—are vividly recalled.
The main focus of the book is the story of one particular union branch (1/1107 of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, TGWU) which had a well-earned reputation for independent organisation, involvement of the membership and rank and file militancy and which predominantly drew its membership from a section of the plant called the PTA (Paint, Trim and Assembly). The development of this branch—and of trade unionism generally at Dagenham—is told through the direct recollections of an impressive number of shopfloor militants, shop stewards, convenors and full-time officials who worked in the plant at various stages. A few of these (including veteran SWP member Eddie Prevost) worked in Dagenham during the period in the 1950s when the earliest battles to win union recognition took place. According to Henry Friedman, who was senior convenor at Ford’s from 1962, the rank and file movement with Briggs Bodies (the forerunner of the PTA) was “probably the most advanced in the country” by the early 1950s. This tradition was particularly strong in the Briggs River Plant, which employed 400 toolmakers with a particularly militant tradition. Many of these had moved down to London from Ford’s first UK manufacturing plant (at Trafford Park in Manchester) and among them was a man called Alec Geddes who had played an active role in the Clyde Workers Committee during the First World War and “who had known Lenin personally”.
Others talk about their involvement in the legendary sewing machinists strike of 1968, as depicted in the film Made in Dagenham, and in the follow-up dispute (16 years later) for full regrading and equal pay. Most of the story, though, is one of determination to uphold a tradition of independent shop-floor organisation and rank and file activity during the period from the late 1960s to the 1980s, in the face of opposition not only from Ford management but also from a plant-wide shop stewards’ bureaucracy and full-time trade union machine intent for the best part on collaboration with the company. One of the best stories tells of how workers in the PTA, incensed at the company’s decision to stop the regular supply of refreshments via a tea trolley, took direct action by welding the replacement vending machines to the factory ceiling.
Ford’s incessant drive for increased productivity during this period was forced upon them because of the imperative of being able to compete on equal terms with companies like Volkswagen in Germany, Nissan, Honda and Toyota in Japan who were working with more advanced technology and using working methods, such as team-working, which were increasingly becoming industry standard at the time.
If there is a weakness in the book, it is that, because the story is essentially told from the ground up, it lacks a bit of overview of what was actually happening in the global car industry at each period and how this was affecting the thinking of the Ford Corporation itself. The overuse of the terms Fordism and post-Fordism in academia and the media in the last couple of decades has created the impression that volume car production no longer exists and, although this is now the case for Ford in the UK, it is most certainly not the case for Ford’s worldwide operations. Ford’s UK manufacturing plants became surplus to requirements because they had outlived their usefulness to the company and would have been fantastically expensive to rebuild and equip with state of the art machinery.
In the US, after a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Ford Motor Company came very close to total bankruptcy, the company has undergone a major transformation, shifting its main production facilities away from Detroit. Nevertheless, Ford production in the US is still enormous, at about 2.3 million vehicles a year in the last four years, forecast to rise to 2.5 million by 2015. In the most recent year for which figures on new car registrations are available (2012) the US was the third largest market in the world, at 7.25 million units a year.
Ford’s more recent strategy has been to establish new plants in other parts of the world such as Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and India. These facilities have been able to start again from square one but with the newest technology available and closer to newly emerging markets. Some of these factories are very similar to Dagenham when it first started, in that they have been built on greenfield sites and have their own ports. But, interestingly, following a period when management fads such as outsourcing of component manufacture, “just in time” delivery and the like became the norm, Ford’s newest facilities actually bring the manufacturers of sub-assemblies back on site. There is still a moving track but all the various sub-assemblies are fed directly onto the assembly line.
At Ford’s newest manufacturing complex in Brazil, at a place called Camacari, more than two dozen suppliers (including the likes of Visteon, Meritor and Lear) operate as satellite manufacturers right inside the plant, delivering exhausts, dashboard assemblies, engines and gearboxes as and when required for each particular model. This way, it can produce five different vehicle platforms at the same time and on the same line. The entire operation, including suppliers, employs about 9,000 workers.1
To some extent, this brings the concept of “just in time” production to a new level, where—in theory at least—there should be no delays in moving components from the suppliers to the assembly line. But as the sewing machinists discovered (much to their own amazement) when they went on strike, Ford was unable to sell cars that didn’t have seats. Similarly, in the 1992 strike at Dagenham, production was stopped throughout Europe within two days because of the knock-on effect of components not being supplied under a “just in time” manufacturing regime. Hopefully, it won’t be long before some of the best traditions established by militants at Dagenham in the last half century are replicated at plants like Camacari.