More than 1,500 auto workers at Ford Motors’ assembly plant near Chennai, the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, have been on strike against factory shutdowns for more than a week. The workers occupied the factory, stopping the production of cars completely.
Strikes are initiated by young workers who make up the majority of the workforce. Although some 500 mostly older workers did not join the occupation for fear of losing severance pay due to management retaliation, they have supported the strike by refusing to cross the line. The work action has disrupted the company’s plans to complete more than 1,400 cars before factory shutdowns are set for later this month. “If we finish building the car, then there is no relationship between management and us, and we won’t be able to sue for anything,” an anonymous worker told ThePrint.
Prior to the strike, workers staged protests inside and outside the factory demanding severance pay before the factory shutdown. A large contingent of police was rushed to the factory to intimidate the protesting workers. However, the workers continued their protest and then went on strike indefinitely, opposing police intimidation.
The Ford Chennai strike is part of the global resurgence of the class struggle to maintain jobs, decent wages and better working and living conditions against efforts by governments and companies to implement tough austerity measures. Workers and youth in Sri Lanka have been involved in mass protests and strikes over the past two months demanding the resignation of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse and his government over skyrocketing prices and shortages of essential goods.
Last May, when the Delta variant of COVID-19 hit India, workers at Ford’s Chennai plant went on a sit-on strike and protested with their brothers and sisters at another Tamil Nadu auto plant owned by Korea- and French-Japan-based Hyundai Motors. Renault-Nissan. They are demanding health protection against COVID-19, following the deaths of more than 25 workers and hundreds of infections in factories. The uprising forced automakers to close their factories for five days. However, they quickly moved to restart production, with the help of the union.
The following September, Ford announced it would end its operations in India, closing its Chennai plant and another in Gujarat. The closures directly threaten 4,000 jobs. However, the Chennai factory closure alone will indirectly affect around 40,000 jobs in total as factory work is associated with many additional units employing unorganized workers. Ford has been manufacturing in India since the mid-1990s but has accumulated more than $2 billion in losses over the last 10 years.
The company’s exit from India is part of a robust global restructuring in the auto industry, which took place before the pandemic but has accelerated greatly since. The auto company announced a billion-dollar investment in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing. To pay for this, Wall Street is exerting enormous pressure to cut labor costs. An article on Bloomberg reports that Ford plans to spend an additional $10–$20 billion to accelerate the shift to EVs over the next five to 10 years. The costs of this transition will be paid for by a “reorganization” plan that has not yet been defined in an ambiguous manner.
Compared to traditional internal combustion vehicles, electric vehicles require far fewer moving parts and less labor to manufacture. Widespread job destruction is on the agenda, while the company plans to add a lower rate of ultra-low-paid production workers at its new EV battery plant.
For now, the Ford plant in Gujarat has been taken over by Tata Motors without any layoffs. Chennai workers have been mobilizing for months to demand equal job security. The factory employs 2,700 permanent workers and 600 contract workers. Many workers even took out home loans to settle in Chennai, which is why the news of the factory closure came as a huge shock to them.
Management tried to suppress opposition to the closure by offering a compensation package. One worker told the Indo-Asian News Service, “Ford management has offered 85 days of pay for each year of service completed. Also, a fixed amount of 42,500 rupees (US $545) for each year of service completed. Previously they had offered 75 days of salary and a fixed amount of 20,000 rupees (US$258) for each year of work completed.”
Prakash, a 32-year-old permanent worker, told World Socialist Website, “Due to the closure of this factory, our entire family is in a crisis situation. We’ve taken out a lot of loans, including home loans, and now we don’t know how we’re going to pay them back. My whole family, including my children who are studying in school, have to move now back to our village due to lack of financial support. Governments in India, both state and federal, act as tools of the big corporations.”
Strikes and factory occupations launched on May 31, but production lines at Ford’s Chennai auto plant were literally ground to a halt the day before, when workers claimed they were being asked to sign an agreement barring them from holding protests. “I will not engage in any activity that interferes with production (including sit-down strikes, late strikes, etc.) or be a part of unauthorized gatherings on-site,” read “employee effort.”
Unions at Ford’s Chennai oppose a broader mobilization of auto workers across India or internationally against factory closures. They don’t want to do anything to scare multinational companies into setting up shop in India. Unions now claim to support strike initiatives by workers. However, they have not responded to the demands of workers regarding job security. Instead, they focus entirely on better severance compensation for workers. The capitalist press, echoing the unions, reported that the strike was solely about severance pay.
The Chennai Ford Workers Union (CFEU) has restricted all industrial action to limited protests, notably limiting workers to toothless calls to the Tamil Nadu government and companies. The DMK-led state government of Tamil Nadu, as its predecessor to AIDDMK and the far-right, Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which also rules at the federal level, is fully committed to defending the profit interests of local and foreign investors, including global auto giants such as Ford, against Indian workers.
To fight the shutdown as well as the deadly pandemic, Ford workers in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat need to turn to their class brothers and sisters across the auto industry in India, the United States and internationally. To carry out such a struggle, they need a new struggle organization, a level-and-file action committee, which is controlled by the workers themselves and independent of the pro-capitalist and nationalist unions and capitalist parties with which the unions are allied.
“Our union has so far not held democratic discussions with the entire workforce,” Ford striker Prakash told WSWS. “On the contrary, from the start they were actively involved in convincing young workers and militants to withdraw from their main demand, namely job security. I could clearly see that the union isolated us from accepting management’s demands.
“I agree with your proposal that this struggle should be broadened, mobilizing workers in nearby industrial zones and elsewhere in India and severing ties with trade unions. I am ready to have further discussions with you regarding the formation of a rank committee.”
Ramapandian, 31, from Theni district in Tamil Nadu said, “The Ford company has made billions of dollars worldwide and has been building new factories everywhere by exploiting us. Now, we are thrown away by claiming that they have suffered losses in recent years.
“Frankly, this struggle wasn’t actually mentioned by our guild. Rather, it is organized by militant young employees who make up the majority of the workforce. Young workers have demanded job security as the main demand. But the unions, acting in the interests of the privileged few, as well as some older workers have suppressed our voices from the start, pushing us toward some low-range settlement packages. I completely agree that our union does not have a clear program and the need to cut ties with these unions.”
Ramesh, a regular worker, said, “When we started the strike, more than 100 police were immediately dispatched at the request of the management. As the strike continued for more than a week, more and more state troops were deployed to intimidate us. We recognize that this action was carried out with the complete guidance and knowledge of the DMK state government acting as the agency’s agent.
“Our union should have asked for proper financial records because Ford management claimed losses. Minutes of amicable discussions between union leaders and management at the labor department office were not publicly reported. The union leaders tried to hide and distort the real information, and the lower class workers were getting angrier by the day at the union’s attitude. I understand the need for democratic discussion among workers as an important step to continue the struggle and the need to form committees to unite with workers in other industries.”