The Visteon/Ford Occupation
The true story of a workers' revolt in Belfast, written by first-time playwright John Maguire, is ferociously authentic
How do you react to change that is forced upon you? Do you accept it, move on, or stand and fight your ground? What informs that decision? Fear, hope, or maybe how much you have to lose?
The recession of the last five years has affected the UK and Ireland in many different ways. Closures, unemployment, the stripping of the value of assets and on and on, a great miscellany of change. What has often been questioned is why our reaction to these events has been so passive. Not for us the mass marches of the French or the Spanish, but rather a grudging acceptance of this as a part of modern life, a necessary evil.
In 2009, a year after the Lehman Bros bankruptcy, the Visteon occupation was a rare example of shafted workers, and the communities from which they came, refusing to simply accept change and move on.
Visteon, a US-owned manufacturer of car parts, declared bankruptcy of their UK businesses in Enfield, Basildon and west Belfast. It was a move that immediately cast hundreds of workers on to the dole, but also removed any redundancy or pension rights at the stroke of a pen.
In return the workers in the three factories occupied their workplaces, thereby ransoming the precious means of production that the company wished to move to South Africa and eastern Europe. After almost two months, Visteon finally agreed to pay redundancies to the workers, although the fight for their pension rights continues through the courts.
John Maguire was plant convenor for the Unite union and initially contacted playwright and theatre producer Martin Lynch to see if the bard of the Belfast working classes would create a play from the story. Lynch encouraged him to do it himself, and so Maguire penned a script to be performed by a cast of 14 actors.
The play demonstrates the events leading up to the declaration of bankruptcy, followed by the occupation of the facilities by the workers. It’s an honest and passionate description of people gathering together to work towards a common cause, in this case the rights of any worker to be treated as a human being, not merely a pliant pawn in somebody else's game.
The action is driven by two main characters, Sean Mallon (Thomas Lappin) and BJ (Adrian Hudson). Mallon is the main Unite convenor, responsible for representing the 'grunters' on the shop floor, and BJ is the representative of the 'suits', middle and senior management, in other words.
Mallon is a man with contradictions, a rough union stalwart with a love of tennis, an Andersonstown boy married to an English Protestant. BJ, conversely, begins the play as a management lackey, and at the end of the story has joined the Socialist Party and is a paragon of working class solidarity.
The rest of the cast bring us an array of colourful characters, from the unsurprisingly venal and two-faced Visteon management, the local hoods and hard men, the English comrades with their own problems in supporting the Belfast workers and an astonishing turn by Tom Dart as Don Fleming, CEO of Visteon, chewing scenery like Rod Stieger after an unsuccessful anger management course.
This is a warts and all depiction of a workplace dissolving. It’s politically incorrect, ferociously sweary, but these elements don’t overwhelm the story. Each character is played with some gusto, and although the performances are a little uneven, the cast give energetic life to the script.
For a first time playwright, Maguire manages to fashion a script that while at times is very rough, and weighed down with repetition, holds the audience throughout, his authenticity creating a play that is far more than a propagandistic review of us marching on to a socialist paradise.
Mallon, for example, agonises about his role in not renegotiating the terms and conditions put in place by Ford when the factory was taken over by Visteon. The senior management blame this agreement for the losses Visteon were taking on in the late 2000s. For Mallon holding out for the better deal is a way of life, but as the convenor, should he have been more flexible?
The occupation ended when Visteon finally offered a redundancy package to each worker, but as the play makes clear, this was a pyrrhic victory. For all BJ's hopeful socialist rhetoric as the workers march out of the factory, these jobs are now lost to Belfast, Enfield and Basildon. This play, however, reminds us that fighting for a cause is an option.
Perhaps the Visteon employees fought because they had something to lose, though a large percentage of the world's workers have no pensions and very few rights above the legal minimum.
Maguire’s play takes us through the lives of the Visteon workers, charts their reactions and offers a tale from the ‘great recession’ in which action was taken. It is refreshing to see a play with a message when so much art produced in Belfast revels in vague concepts, and sidesteps making any clear statements about the contemporary world. This small piece of industrial history, and Maguire’s telling of it, was worth the fight.
The Visteon/Ford Occupation is at the Emerald Roadhouse Theatre, Finaghy Road North, Belfast until November 24.