Archive : 40 years ago today – strikes galore

On 15 February 1977, British Leyland looked in terrible shape, with strikes crippling the company, cars lying unbuilt and market share melting away. Things were looking grim, and this is how the papers were reporting the situation back then.

Leyland standstill worsens with 11 models halted and 20,000 idle

The number of British Leyland workers made idle by disputes rose to 20,000 yesterday. Eleven different car models were out of production, leaving only seven on which work is still in progress. Leyland’s output losses are estimated to be running at more than £12m a day, and there seems little prospect of an early end to the stoppages that have plunged the state car group into its worst crisis for many months.

At a mass meeting yesterday, one group of strikers voted to stay out for another week. At other strike centres the stoppages are over issues that go to the core of shopfloor opposition; over reorganisation of working arrangements. Even more serious, perhaps, is that the protest actions within the car plants seem to be increasingly linked to the pressure by shop steward organizations for an end to pay restraint and a return to free collective bargaining.

Shop stewards say they can end the strikes

Only in this way, the stewards say will it be possible to end many anomalies in wage rates and give the degree of flexibility in pay bargaining necessary for the success of job transfer schemes. As the car plants re-opened yesterday after the weekend, the lay-off position worsened.

Leyland has three main trouble centres and, at all of them, the strikes arise from the company’s plans to restructure its production. At the big Midlands car body centre at Castle Bromwich, 1300 workers are on strike and another 3000 laid off with all production halted.

Here, the stoppage results from a management decision to dismiss 32 men who demanded redundancy pay and not be moved to new jobs. The shortage of car body shells and other pressed components which has resulted from the shutdown has had a devastating effect in the car assembly centres.

Stoppages in Birmingham, Coventry, Oxford…

At Coventry, Jaguar production is stopped with 1950 workers laid off. Another 2700 men are idle at Longbridge (Birmingham), where Mini car production is stopped. At Solihull, the Rover 3500 range is out of production and 1085 men have been sent home.

At Cowley (Oxford), both the Maxi and Princess lines are at a standstill because of shortages of pressings normally made at Castle Bromwich. The trouble at Cowley, where 3500 workers are idle, and more are facing the prospect of lay-offs, is aggravated by a further internal dispute which has stopped Marina car production.

This strike involved 150 maintenance engineers objecting to proposed changes in working arrangements. Within the Cowley complex 650 more workers are laid off from the central spares department because of a stoppage by 60 men.

Big trouble at Triumph

Leyland’s third big trouble centre is the Triumph plant at Canley (Coventry) where the 350 strikers from the paint shop voted yesterday to continue their two-week-old stoppage which has halted output of Dolomite, Stag, Spitfire andTriumph 2000 cars. The strikers are objecting to the management’s use of industrial engineers on work-study exercises in their department, a move that is also linked to reorganization plans.

The shut-down at Coventry has meant the lay-off of another 400 men at the Dolomite body plant at Liverpool and a further 220 at the Spitfire body plant at Bordesley Green, Birmingham.

Bus output hit: Five hundred workers at the company’s bus and truck division at Leyland were laid off yesterday, because of a week-long strike by 17 crane drivers. The drivers, who move heavy frames in the assembly factory, want upgrading in the company’s pay structure.

Keith Adams
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  1. My Dad was in Pressed Steel in Swindon, unhappy and frustrated with the widespread disease that permeated the country with a desire to cripple our motor industry and fight the employer on every front.
    I purchased and avidly read a broadsheet newspaper every morning, following the situation blow by blow, meeting by meeting, demonstration by demonstration – watching the working man destroy our greatest industry – as if driven by some hidden mythological power.
    Many have taken the view that ‘Management didn’t help – they were inept and hideously deaf to cries and warnings of the need to listen to the customer and to listen to influential stylist who’s work they ruined to save a shilling.
    The big difference for me is that the management made mistakes (by definition; an accident) – whilst the unions convinced the men to break the company deliberately!

    • You’d be surprised how many of those disputes were ‘engineered’ by senior management. A great example was the so-called ‘washing up strike’…..ostensibly about removing in-hours ablutions, to enable more cars to be built in a shift…..oddly, at the same time the lines in Cowley North Works were refitted….as soon as this was complete, the company caved in and the strike was over! Blimey, what a shocker eh?

      The unions did play a part, but only a part. The biggest problem in the company was inept, incompetent, pig-headed, management – particularly at the top. The decisions made (or sometimes not made) were often idiotic. The internal politics were never tackled.

  2. Meanwhile, Ford simply sourced Escorts from Saarlouis, Fiestas from Valencia or Cologne and Cortinas from Genk. Vauxhall Cavaliers and Carltons were built in Belgium or Germany by Opel. And then of course the Japs were bringing Datsun Cherrys and Sunnys in by the boatload. It’s tragic how BL workers couldn’t wake up and smell the coffee, as to what they were doing to their own employment.

  3. We have done this so many times on ARONLINE – and these differing views are as old as the hills. Was it the unions, the men or the management that ruined our industry? Surely a reasonable view is that it was a joint effort on behalf of all (excluding my Dad and a handful of others who repeatedly fought through the picket lines to try and actually do some work!).
    Anyone who has read the Leyland Papers and Back from the Brink , must surely also agree that management was very often in a cacoon of idiocy – unaware and unwilling to think ‘out of the box’ and consider the wider picture – but would rather pursue in-fighting to protect their narrow little agendas. The delays in progress of the company caused by two men arguing about who was going to be leader – reads like something from a ‘Boys Own’ playground adventure.
    Add to this sorry situation the Union’s desire to win a war at any cost – and the ‘committed following’ of thousands of workers (because they had so few options), and we have that melting pot of disharmony that only an Edwards or a Thatcher (or both) could crush. Forgetting any partisan and political aspirations – at the end of the day it is people that turn a company around.
    No one will ever know what would have happened if neither of those two people had ever been appointed. Interesting thought isn’t it? If the situation in the late 70’s had been allowed to continue – what would have become of this country?
    In discussion with others, several of whom are ex BL men previously in design, styling and tool making, the predictions vary as one might expect. However, they vary only in degrees of how bad it would be. None of them suggest it would have fizzled out to a harnonious outcome for us all.

    • You seem to imply that Edwards and Thatcher were somehow linked. It’s a very common mistake. Edwards was installed by Callaghan’s Labour government, to break the company up, sell what could be sold, and rationalise the rest into making smaller losses. Thatcher had no time for Edwards or his approach. Day was her man, and most agree that he did a far better job for the company.

      • Edwards, I think, tried his best. He managed to dismiss the notorious Red Red Robbo, which led to a big fall in the amount of strikes in the company, and led the company through a restructure that was essential for its survival that a few years earlier would have been brought down by the unions. Also under Edwards, it did seem the company’s decline was halted with new products like the Metro and the Acclaim and market share stopped dropping, and old warhorses like the Austin Maxi and Allegro were finally retired. However, underlying issues with quality, a simmering them and us culture in the factories, and dependence on subsidies were never beaten under Edwards.

  4. Apologies – I did not mean to imply that Thatcher and Edwards were linked – my knowledge of the period is better than that. What I did mean was, that strong characters – often in company history – provide the ‘sea change’ that is needed. Clearly Edwards was not wholly successful and he made some significant mistakes (in the view of many) but he did halt the rot of the ‘union power’ – which at least provided a platform for the company to go forward. (Unlike the dubious plan he inherited that was so ‘pie in the sky’ it was doomed to failure). The saddest part of the entire story is that what Edwards and his successors built/rescued/saved – whatever? was finally destroyed by yet more totally inept management – but a workforce who were doing their very best!
    If the true and very accurate history of BL were made into a film – no would believe it – the film goers would think it sheer fantasy!
    You may well be right about Day (I wasn’t there so I really don’t know) – but all the ex BL guys I talk to rate Edwards as the real bright light. Some of them may be biased of course – at least one of them had his office right next to Michael’s!

  5. This period is covered in my essay British Leyland the grand illusion.
    You have to remember the mindset of the time.
    The Labour government had been elected in 1974 with a Tony Benn inspired manifesto to save jobs by taking ailing companies into state ownership. Now whether or not you agreed with this, many within BL felt they had a job for life, that it was strategically important for Britain to maintain an indigenous motor industry.
    At the time many BL employees simply saw themselves as striving for better pay and conditions at a time of double digit inflation, and the threat from rival manufacturers seemed to recede into the background. Remember the previous year UK inflation had peaked at 26%. The concept that a British government would dare to sanction a brutal rationalisation of BL was alien to them, and it was delayed until after the May 1979 General Election.
    What really angered many people about the Thatcher government was it dared to pull the plug on state supported industries, instead of propping them up with taxpayers money ad infinitum, thus creating unemployment. Again the merits of this policy are up for debate.
    Suffice to say, the industrial politics of the 1970’s and 1980’s were the creation of Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher, inspiring their fanatical supporters but leaving little room to manoeuvre for the pragmatists.

  6. Just a small point. It was Edwardes (with an extra ‘E’), not Edwards.

    Lets do the bloke the courtesy of getting his name right.

  7. You can’t really blame the unions for awful designs like the Allegro, which buyers stayed away from in droves, nor can you blame British Leyland for strikes by external suppliers that often led to production being suspended and lay offs, or the workers for being part of a merger of two successful companies that created one huge bad one where internal rivalries and management incompetence were endemic. However, you can blame the unions for the endless waves of strikes that were politically motivated by hard left shop stewards like Alan Thornett, undoubtedly union militancy and absenteeism led to the closure of plants like Speke, and surely if the production line was constanly being disrupted by strikes, then quality was bound to suffer.

  8. Interesting as I type this, the song Part of the Union is playing on the radio, a tongue in cheek song about the power of unions in the seventies and their ability to call strikes and bring down governments. While this sounds a like a quaint song from 44 years ago, the power of unions was very real in the seventies and apart from the well publicised British Leyland strikes on here, the unions were so powerful they were able to make and break governments, as occured in 1974 and 1979.

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