Ian Nicholls recalls British Leyland’s terrible year of strikes – 1969. Much of the fault for which, lay at the Government’s door.
The year of 1969 will always be remembered for the first moon landings, Biafra, Woodstock, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Chappaquiddick. While 500,000 were enjoying peace and love at Woodstock, community relations in Northern Ireland broke down into sectarian hate and violence. This was the last year of the Swinging Sixties, a final flowering of youth as the harsh world of the 1970s beckoned.
Less fondly remembered was the economic situation as a large island off the coast of Europe was coming to terms with the fact that it was no longer the centre of the largest empire the world has ever known and that relations between the forces of labour and capital were becoming increasingly fractious as the promise of a post-War new Jerusalem evaporated.
After the post-merger fine words of 1968, came a reality check for British Leyland.
Labour tries to get control of strikes
In January, the Labour Government, concerned at the effect that strikes were having on productivity, published the White Paper, ‘In Place Of Strife‘, which included proposals to introduce strike ballots and outlaw unofficial strikes. It divided the ruling Labour Party, the Cabinet and earned the implacable opposition of the trade unions, who claimed they could enforce discipline on their own members.
If anything, ‘In Place Of Strife‘ was a red rag to a bull as 1969 panned out. The industrial relations problem seemed to spiral out of control, as shop floor discipline disintegrated.
British Leyland was hit by two long disputes at its profitable cash cows which had enabled the Leyland Motor Corporation to gain the upper hand in merger negotiations with British Motor Holdings (BMH). Five truck and bus plants in Leyland itself were strikebound for five weeks in the summer and Standard-Triumph was stricken by an 11-week strike at Speke on Merseyside in the autumn.
The root cause was the difference in pay between places like Leyland and Speke and the industrial Midlands where higher wage rates were in operation.
The pundits and politicians had not taken into account the demand for parity with the Midlands when the BMH-Leyland merger was mooted. By merging with BMH, ostensibly to sort out the perceived BMC basket case, Leyland had left itself wide open to demands for pay parity, which would in turn increase its manufacturing costs and harm competitiveness.
This, then, is the story of the strike that afflicted the five truck and bus plants in and around Leyland in the summer of 1969.
Anatomy of a strike in 1969
We start our story with the pre-merger British Motor Corporation. The British Motor Corporation Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee had come into being in the mid-1960s when the veteran Communist Convener at Longbridge, Dick Etheridge (above), began to call meetings of Conveners from other plants. The intention was to swap details of piecework rates, wage drift and possible moves to change the use of factories. It met not more than half-a-dozen times a year and preferred to operate quietly. The merger with the Leyland Motor Corporation resulted in its expansion and, on 1 May 1968, the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) came into existence.
The Committee or Combine, as it was sometimes known, would operate under a variety of similar sounding names over the years. Joint Chairmen were elected: Dick Etheridge and Eddie McGarry from Leyland’s Standard-Triumph International plant at Canley, Coventry. The plan was that the new body would meet once every six months, but domestic problems would still be left to the existing organisations in the separate factories or groups of factories.
About this time, 33-year-old Len Brindle, another Communist Party member and Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF) Shop Steward, had become Convener at Leyland Bus and Trucks and had an excellent power base. Leyland employees were poorly paid compared with the group’s car workers. By joining the Combine Len Brindle knew he would gain access to detailed information on wages and the support of vastly experienced negotiators such as Dick Etheridge. It was no surprise when he brought Leyland into the Combine.
Stokes addresses the unions
On April 28 1969 BLMC Chairman and Managing Director Lord Stokes (above) visited Leyland in Lancashire for the usual monthly meeting with management and union representatives at the company’s truck and bus plants. Lord Stokes met Len Brindle, the Leyland Works Convener, and other union men, in the firm’s social club. They all shook hands and sat down for three hours to talk about factory affairs, and the only change requested by the union men involved more rubbish boxes for the factory floors.
The vital question of equal pay with the company’s Midlands car workers was not discussed. Neither was the question of higher bonus payments at the Leyland factories. Lord Stokes then left.
That same afternoon Scottish-born William Ferguson Deans, a Miller in the Machine Shop at Leyland’s North Works, refused to work on a gear-box assembly. He wanted a specific bonus for the job, which had not yet been assessed by the time and motion study men – if he worked on the gear box without knowing his bonus rate, his pay would suffer, he claimed.
The next day William Ferguson Deans again questioned his bonus and was told to get on with the job or go home. He went home and the rest of the shop — 200 men – walked out with him in sympathy.
Mr Deans later said: ‘It could have been anyone who did it. I worked it out. If I did this new job without them fixing a rate, I was going to be out of pocket. I asked them to fix a price and pay me an average wage while they did it. They told me to go home, and the rest came out with me.’
The real issue was the disparity between the wages earned by the truck men and the Midlands cars workers in British Leyland. The Leyland men claimed that the firm’s Midland workers earned an average of £30 a week compared with their £20. ‘Why should we earn £10 a week less for doing the same jobs? I am lucky if I take home anything like £20 a week, and I have to work hard for it,’ said Mr Deans.
Brindle meets Ron Ellis
On 30 April Leyland Works Convener Len Brindle met the General Manager of British Leyland’s Bus and Truck division, Ron Ellis, and took up Mr Deans’ case. Mr Deans and the rest of the men went back to work that day. It was revealed to Ron Ellis that ‘feelings among the men were running high.’
Ron Ellis was born in August 1925, and was educated at Preston Grammar School and Manchester University. He would later join the British Leyland Board and become Head of Sales for the Ministry of Defence, succeeding former BMC man Sir Lester Suffield, picking up a knighthood in the process.
On May Day, 1969 Len Brindle contacted the management and said that higher bonus payments were wanted for many Leyland workers to give them parity with those in the Midlands. The following day Brindle took further proposals to the management. They involved a minimum wage of over £23 for about 3500 machinists, and a guaranteed £18 10s. for newcomers. Women would receive the same bonus payments as men.
The management set up a committee to look into this claim, which involved altering about 100,000 time rates on different jobs. On 8 May Len Brindle went back to the management and extended the pay claim further so that it involved all the 4500 pieceworkers at Leyland. The company asked for a month to sort the matter out and the union men agreed that there was a lot of work involved in the claim.
The battle to settle wage claims
However, on Wednesday 14 May some 6000 workers at Leyland decided at a mass meeting that if nothing was done to settle their pay claim quickly they would stop work from the following Monday (19 May). The management said it was prepared to continue negotiations but shop floor representatives accused the company of being unwilling to reach a reasonable settlement. They rejected both an offer from the management and the proposed timetable for its introduction. Attitudes had now hardened.
Come the big day some 200 pickets were on the gates when the first major strike in 40 years began at Leyland Motors, five plants at Leyland, Lancashire. But at lunchtime, after no one had tried to break the lines, Len Brindle, the Chairman of the Joint Works Committee, sent them home. The strike had brought work to a standstill. The only people at work were members of the administrative staff.
The strikers were hourly paid workers in ten unions, but mainly the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers. The vehicle factories on which the whole town of Leyland depended had a remarkable record of trouble-free labour relations and this was the first strike of any size for nearly 40 years.
Leyland strike: the first in 40 years
The following day a management spokesman described the position as ‘deadlock’ and said the company could not resume discussions of any kind until there was a return to work. Meanwhile, local representatives of Britain’s biggest engineering union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers, to which the majority of the strikers belonged, were appealing to their national leaders to give the stoppage official backing.
The standstill, over a pay claim, was hitting British Leyland’s top export plants. The five factories, four at Leyland itself and one at nearby Chorley, housed the company’s bus and commercial vehicle division, together with the diesel engines and spares workshops. Between them they had total output worth £1 million a day, and some 60% of that was sold abroad. They employed some 9200 people so that the unofficial strike was being supported by almost the entire shop floor labour force. Pickets were on duty at the factory gates in the morning but they stayed for only an hour when it was apparent that no production workers were prepared to enter the workshops or assembly lines.
Union officials claimed that younger executives brought in following the reorganisation of the group’s Truck and Bus Division after the BMH-Leyland merger in 1968 had adopted such a hard line in discussions with shop floor representatives that, as one put it, ‘they have gone a long way to destroying the trust and understanding built up over many years.’
Pay increases demanded
He admitted that, since the merger and closer ties with the former BMH factories in the Midlands, Leyland members had been pressing for pay increases to bring them more into line with car workers in Birmingham and Coventry who were earning £5 to £10 a week more. Slogans chalked on walls at Leyland demanded ‘Parity with the Midlands’.
On 21 May, a BLMC spokesman said: ‘We are not at this stage too concerned about direct financial loss. What concerns us much more is that if the strike continues we may miss delivery dates on export orders and this could lead to potential overseas orders being lost.’
The following day Len Brindle addressed a mass meeting of workers at Leyland. He told them that the AEF District Committee had recommended to the union’s national executive that the strike be made official. The mass meeting of most of the 8500 workers who were on unofficial strike voted to continue the stoppage.
Jobs threat to strikers
On 3 June, British Leyland warned the 8500 strikers at its Lancashire plants that their own jobs were now threatened. In the first detailed statement by the company since the strike began 20 days before, it said that the dispute was seriously jeopardising the company’s international trading position and could well make it difficult to keep the factory at full employment in future if confidence in its ability to deliver, especially overseas, was seriously impaired.
The statement emphasised that Leyland was the only major commercial vehicle producer in the United Kingdom not controlled by America – if Leyland and the remainder of the group could not operate without continuing successions of unnecessary interruptions to production, then ‘the future of the British-owned sector of the motor industry is very bleak indeed.’
The next day Lord Stokes spelt out the serious consequences of continued industrial disputes to the group’s 168,000 employees in 60 plants throughout Britain. Further pressure on the 8500 strikers in Leyland’s Lancashire plants to go back to work also came from the Labour Government. In talks at the Department of Employment and Productivity in London, which initially ended in deadlock, Roy Hattersley, Joint Under-Secretary at the DEP, told Hugh Scanlon, the Engineers’ leader, and stewards from the plants in the strongest possible terms that the strikers should, ‘go back into procedure’, so talks could resume.
Stokes: ‘serious situation’
In his statement Lord Stokes said: ‘The situation is becoming so serious that I felt I must warn all employees in all our companies in the group that we are putting at risk and into serious danger the continuity of future employment if we lose the confidence of our customers at home and overseas, and this is happening due to delays in delivery of finished vehicles. There is bound to be widespread unemployment and short-time working, which brings to ruin the successful efforts which we have all made in the past few years.’
His statement – prominently displayed in group newspapers – went on to say that an unprecedented number of unofficial strikes in recent months had caused a dramatic drop in production of vehicles, spare parts and components.
‘All this is particularly unfortunate at a time when British Leyland is fighting the Americans and other international motor manufacturers for a reasonable share of the world market. If we lose the confidence of our customers at home and overseas – and this is happening because of delays in delivery of finished vehicles – there is bound to be widespread unemployment and short-time working, which brings to ruin the successful efforts, which we have all made in the past few years.
‘Foreign car manufacturers are fighting us – the only major British firm – even more strongly for what sales are available.’ – Lord Stokes
‘At present the United Kingdom market for cars is very depressed – 90,000 cars sold on the home market in March this year, compared with 130,000 in the same month last year. This means that foreign car manufacturers are fighting us – the only major British firm – even more strongly for what sales are available.
‘Design and quality have brought us reasonable success so far, but people will not wait indefinitely for our cars just because we have some sort of a dispute at a particular factory, when other types of cars are available. Overseas we have the best order book we have ever had in the history of the company, but here again people are getting fed up with having to wait for delivery of our cars, when they can have Japanese, German or American cars off the shelf.
‘I am merely stating the elementary facts of life, as it is my duty and responsibility to do. If we can keep the British Leyland factories going at full production with goodwill on the part of everybody, with all of us trying to resolve disputes, which we must inevitably have from time to time, amicably and without cessation of work, with all of us co-operating to overcome the problems rather than magnify them, then I can see a rosy future for every one of us. The simple fact is that despite what politicians, the welfare state or anyone else may say, if you have not got any orders you cannot get paid and you cannot run your factory.
‘You cannot expect either me or any of our overseas salesmen to keep on going round the world getting contracts for the supply of vehicles and components, and then finding that the home factories are unable to supply because of industrial disputes.’ – Lord Stokes
‘We have captured the world’s imagination and worried our competitors by the aggressive way we have wielded British Leyland into a trim and fit fighting unit in only 12 months. With trendsetting products like the Maxi, the Triumphs and Rovers, the XJ6 and the Leyland gas turbine, we have excited demand throughout the world.
‘I know you are all proud of your products, but you must see that they have to be delivered on time and at the right price. We shall from time to time have disagreements and problems in our factories, this is only human nature, but only by talking can we make progress and I urge you to push such disputes as may arise through the official channels and not stop the factory while we are talking.’
After warning that British Leyland plants overseas would soon be running short of parts, Lord Stokes urged employees not to resort to unofficial disputes while their claims were being examined.
Strikes continue to grow
On 5 June, there was another mass meeting at Leyland by the strikers. They were told that the strike was likely to be declared official by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers. A recommendation that this should be done was expected to be made to the unions executive by Hugh Scanlon, the AEF’s President. The news was greeted with cheers by strikers at the mass meeting when they voted overwhelmingly – only three hands went up in opposition – to continue the stoppage.
Copies of the works newspaper circulated among the strikers before the meeting on the day, contained the statement by Lord Stokes, in which he warned that a recent series of strikes in the group were putting the jobs of many of its 168,000 employees in 60 British plants in jeopardy. The statement brought a sharp reply from Hugh Scanlon. In an interview he accused Lord Stokes of being guilty of ‘industry blackmail’. Hugh Scanlon said that rather than ‘rushing in with autocratic instructions’ it would be a better service if both the company and the unions were to examine the causes of the dispute.
On 9 June the strike was deadlocked. The number of workers either on strike or laid off reached its new peak when Jaguar announced that over the next 36 hours, 2500 workers would be sent home from its two car plants at Browns Lane and Radford, Coventry. The lay-off resulted from the shut-down of five Leyland factories in Lancashire because of the pay strike there.
Jaguar production grinds to a halt
One of these factories supplied vital XK engine cylinder block castings for the Jaguar car factories, which employed a total of 6400 workers. A Jaguar spokesman said the men being laid off would be told not to report again until further notice. Work in some sections of the two factories would continue and these included those units involved in the finishing of cars before delivery to customers.
On 10 June, the executive of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers declared the strike at the five Leyland truck and bus factories official. Arthur Hearsey, an executive council member of the AEF, said: ‘For Leyland to say it is not going to talk until there is a return to work will prolong an industrial war of attrition.’
On 12 June, Colin Fishwick, an AEF official who acted as deputy to Len Brindle, the Works Convener, said of the Leyland management: ‘We can no longer trust them. This place has been a powder keg for months, and now it has blown up.’ He also said that he was just as concerned about the loss of exports as Lord Stokes.
‘But we do not think that only the workers should think about the national interest. Lord Stokes talked about the factories closing down if the strike went on. Was he acting in the national interest when he said that? Well, now we’ve closed them down.’
More than a million a week in losses
By 16 June it was calculated that the Leyland strike was costing £1,167,000 a week, half of which represented export orders. It had also caused layoffs in Glasgow, where Albion trucks were made, because Leyland supplied some engines. The weekly cost there was £450,000 — half of this in exports.
At Jaguar Cars (where Leyland supplied XK engine cylinder block castings), 160 cars a day were being lost — 70% of them ordered by overseas customers, at a daily cost of £320,000. Two big export orders for trucks had gone to foreign competitors because the strike had threatened delivery dates.
A Danish firm switched its contract to a manufacturer in Sweden and a customer in Uruguay gave his order to a Spanish firm. They were worth a total of £58,000 — ‘and we’ll lose more as the strike goes on,’ predicted Trevor Webster, the Deputy Managing Director of British Leyland’s Overseas Division.
Only two days later British Leyland began to celebrate the production of two million Minis (above). Leyland had gained control of BMC thanks to the powerhouse performance of its commercial vehicles, but now the source of that prosperity was in deep trouble. But there was a glimmer of hope. On 18 June after eight hours of top-level negotiations, leaders of the strike committee accepted a formula worked out by union and management representatives to settle the dispute over a claim for increased piecework rates and then voted unanimously to recommend that there should be a return to work.
On 23 June, more than 8000 production workers employed at the five Lancashire factories of Leyland returned to work after their strike. It was the first day’s production at the factories in Leyland and Chorley since the men had walked out on 19 May over a piece rate dispute.
It was also the first day back for workers in the Albion motor works, Glasgow, and the Jaguar plant, Coventry. The Albion works, which had 2500 men laid off because of the Leyland dispute, depended on the Leyland plants for their supply of diesel engines.
The General Manager of British Leyland’s Bus and Truck Division, Ron Ellis, said: ‘I have been into the factories, over the weekend. I do not expect any undue snags.’
More trouble at the mill
However, only two days later, more trouble flared up. A dispute arose over the terms of the back-to-work agreement. The initial stumbling block was a disagreement about a clause covering piecework rates.
When workers at the factories, four in Leyland and one at Chorley, reported for work on 25 June, they immediately walked out again to hold meetings. Nearly 7000 attended the Leyland meeting, and another 1000 were at the Chorley one. Unlike the meetings held during the strike, both of these were angry affairs, with groups of men shouting their complaints that the management were failing to carry out the terms of a ‘peace settlement’ which ended the strike. Len Brindle, senior Works Convener, told the Leyland meeting that the agreement reached with the management was merely a formula for a return to work and nothing more. He alleged that the management was now trying to hold him to it and maintaining that it was a hard and fast agreement.
Shop floor representatives alleged that the management was planning to introduce a fixed day rate at the factories, which in practice would keep earnings below the level which the men were claiming when they went on strike, and which they believed they had won in the settlement. At both meetings there were demands for immediate strike action. Len Brindle advised against it for the time being. Vincent Murphy, the Deputy Chairman of the Works Committee, said:
‘If this is not sorted out by Friday afternoon we will empty the factories like lightning.’
In the end both meetings voted for an immediate work to rule and an overtime ban.
Management begs union members to keep working
On 27 June a meeting of the 130 Shop Stewards from the Leyland factories received a message from the executive of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers urging them to persuade their members to stay at work while further negotiations took place. The stewards decided to recommend this course to lunchtime mass meetings, one at Leyland and another at Chorley.
The first big meeting at Leyland, attended by 7000 men, was noisy and at times hostile. Groups of workers shouted accusations, that the Works Committee members had ‘sold us up the river’. Len Brindle, the senior Works Convener, argued that the management was now convinced that the Shop Stewards were not prepared to accept the company’s interpretation of the new piece work system, and he believed that further strike action should be ‘postponed’ while talks continued. The final vote at both meetings was against immediate strike action, but a ban on overtime working was to continue, which meant that the company could not yet make up any of the estimated £5.5 million production lost by the strike.
It was on 4 July that the protracted Leyland dispute was finally settled.
After a fortnight of negotiations between Shop Stewards and the management two mass meetings in Leyland and Chorley accepted the new management pay proposals, which meant that no skilled worker would receive less than £23 13s. 8d. a week – the basic sum the strikers had demanded at the outset of the dispute. The men also agreed to lift their two-week ban on overtime. The stoppage had cost the company an estimated £5.5 million in lost production.
Leyland’s standing permanently damaged
The Leyland strike was more than just another industrial dispute, it was the event that punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding the Lancashire vehicle manufacturer. BLMC could no longer rely on its truck and bus plants to prop up its other operations and, if it had had any goodwill among its Leyland and Chorley workforce, that was now gone.
The Leyland strike was an unnecessary and protracted dispute at a time when organised labour was beginning to demand equality in pay for both gender and regional reasons.
Len Brindle was knocking on an open door in demanding pay parity with the Midlands and Leyland was at fault for not recognising the inevitable – in the event, its management’s stubbornness in not coming to terms with that cost the company £5.5 million in production. After all, the strikers got what they wanted. British Leyland did need to stand up to the trade unions within its ranks in order to introduce a new wage structure and rationalise its operations, but at Leyland they chose the wrong battleground. Later senior British Leyland management looked on pay parity throughout its plants as a pre-requisite for industrial harmony.
What were the ramifications?
What, then, lurked behind the Leyland facade of salesmanship and headline exports?
In 1963, Hamish Orr-Ewing joined the Leyland Motor Corporation from Ford as a Product Planner. At Leyland he found that the cost of manufacturing a diesel engine was around 350% more than the equivalent Ford unit. He also felt that that Leyland had not been fully integrated.
He told author Jonathan Wood: ‘It was all over the place in penny pieces. Each factory had its Chief Engineer and Drawing Office. But there was a lack of real muscle where it was needed.’
Speaking of the plants in Leyland itself he said: ‘I regarded it as a tragedy. Some of the people there were absolutely superb. They were loyal, tough Lancastrians who were capable of enormous amounts of hard work and would have done anything they were asked. All they needed was good leadership and modern management.’
If Hamish Orr-Ewing regarded Leyland’s management as inept, and the firm’s own boss Lord Stokes regarded BMC’s managers in a similar vein, is it any wonder that the merged corporation failed?