Archive : 12,000 car workers laid off as Cowley plant halts again

By R. W. Shakespeare

The huge British Leyland Austin-Morris car plant at Cowley, Oxford, which reopened yesterday morning after the Easter holidays, is again at a standstill because of labour troubles. All car production is stopped and from this morning 12,000 workers will be laid off. The shutdown follows a decision yesterday by 150 transport drivers to continue their unofficial strike over layoff arrangements at the plant.

This dispute closed the assembly lines at the body plant before the holidays, making 10,500 workers idle. Now a new and abrasive element has been added to the dispute with a decision by the management to withdraw official recognition and facilities from Mr Alan Thornett, the chairman of the Cowley joint shop stewards committee. He has been instructed to return to his normal work as a transport driver. At their mass meeting yesterday the drivers decided not to meet again until Friday.

This means that the Cowley plant is faced with a probable shutdown for the whole of this week and the loss of car production worth about £6m. Over the two weeks before the holidays British Leyland suffered losses of some £10m worth of cars at Cowley and another £5m worth at Long- bridge, Birmingham, because of labour troubles.

The fresh wave of disputes comes at a critical time for the corporation which has a massive backlog of orders after the power crisis and three-day week, during which it lost output of 100,000 vehicles. The shop stewards committee at Cowley is certain to make a big issue out of the action taken by the management over Mr Thornett. The managements statement accused Mr Thornett of
“blatantly demonstrating his unwillingness to use his best endeavours to keep men at work while disputes are discussed” and of failing to comply with agreed disputes procedures.

The troubles at Cowley stem from management moves to introduce new working arrangements, including revised manning scales and line speeds aimed at higher productivity. These led to a strike by workers on the Marina assembly lines during which some 4,000 other men, including some of the transport drivers, bad to be laid off. This strike ended’a few hours after Mr John Symonds, the plant director, warned the men involved that those who refused to work under the new arrangement would be sacked. Then the transport drivers walked out.

They challenged the lay-off arrangements which had applied during the assembly line stoppage, although the lay-off agreement at Cowley, as in other British Leyland plants, clearly states that guaranteed lay-off pay is suspended if a stoppage is caused by any dispute within the plant. There are, however, some hopeful signs for British Leyland which has had to face a succession of costly shop floor confrontations at Cowley recently, in addition to a whole series of problems over component supplies because of disputes in other firms.

There are some indications of a growing shop floor reaction against some of the more militant shop stewards and their supporters. The fresh shut down this week with most workers again losing pay at an average rate of £45 a week could strengthen this trend. But British Leyland will, of course, find itself involved in the national action over the engineering pay claim. British Leyland is a member of the Engineering Employers Federation and its own workers will be expected to observe the official overtime ban.

It could also run into further components supply problems because most of its 2,000 components suppliers are also federated firms.

Keith Adams
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