Archive : A £3 million spanner in the Solihull works

Simon Beavis finds that money is not the only cause of the Land Rover strike

I’ve never seen one so solid, and I’ve been here for 37 years, was how Alfred Brown described the first day of the strike by 6,000 Land Rover assembly workers over pay and conditions. At lunchtime yesterday, Mr Brown, an electrical fitter and transport union shop steward at the Solihll plant, was one of about 15 pickets still manning the Valiant Way main gate where earlier there had been more than 1,000. No manual workers had gone in and production was at a standstill in an action expected to cost Land Rover £3 million a day in lost production.

The dispute is the latest outbreak of industrial unrest in the motor industry, but the Land Rover workers stressed that their dispute has little in common with the strike at Ford which ended as theirs began. The only link, workers said, was the encouraging news from Mr Ron Todd, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, that little of the TGWU’ s £6 million to back the Ford strike had been used, leaving funds for the Land Rover dispute.

Assembly workers are resolved to increase the management’s pay offer, which they estimate is worth 8 per cent over two years but which the company says adds up to 14 per cent. Though, gritting their teeth for a long dispute if necessary, they seem far from militant, and were anxious to portray management as unwilling to negotiate or to start talks. Their arguments lie not strictly with the money being offered but with the way it is being offered through bonus schemes and an increased attendance allowance. This would be worth £8.50 a week, against the current £7. They reject company worries that adding the £8.50 to to basic rates of pay would create absenteeism. To John Townley, a grade 2 worker on the Land Rover line, the offer would be worth an extra £4 or £5 on a weekly take home pay of £130.

“All the lads want to do is go in there earn a living and go home to their families” he said, cocking his thumb at the factory behind.

Jim Clarke, a grade 2 worker, calculates the offer would mean at best a £2 rise on his £102 weekly pay. He thought that workers had been misrepresented. “The lads are proud to be seen as Land Rover or Range Rover workers,” he said.

Absenteeism was always only a problem with certain people. The company has already won local agreement on the Range Rover line to a new shift system, where workers put in a 39-hour week in four rather than five days. But pickets yesterday were worried that the system would be imposed in other parts of the factory rather than introduced by agreement.

They also reject company efforts to phase out cash payment of wages in favour of weekly credit transfer to bank accounts. They argue that for workers on some shifts, it would be Impossible to get to banks to withdraw money without being absent and losing their attendance allowance. The fact that workers were not rushing to accept the company’s offer of £100 to switch to credit transfer was evidence that the dispute was not only about money, Mr Townley said. More deeply, the workforce workforce resents what they see as bad management initiatives in recent years.

“The investment that has been put in has not been spent wisely,” said Alfred Brown.

He noted that Japanese companies spent money on tooling the workforce properly so that increased production demands could be met and bonuses earned. Land Rover had “built factories that didn’t need to be built,” he said. In addition, poor supply and poor quality of components left workers hard pressed to meet production levels where they would earn maximum bonuses. Deeper still, Land Rover workers feel that Mr Graham Day, chairman of the Rover group, and the man who has the task of shaping up the nationalised company for privatisation, has been operating an unethical pension holiday.

Last September, with the Rover Group pension fund in surplus by £180 million on a pre-stockmarket crash evaluation, the unions reinvested £80 million in the fund while the company held on to £80 million and put £20 million in reserve, they alleged. Mr Day had walked off with £80 million, claimed one picket. Another said:

“The only money he’s ever made is off the pension fund” .

The strike is the first stoppage since 1981 when the workforce was out for six days during the reign of Sir Michael Edwardes over the then British Leyland group. Since then, pickets said, the company had been confronted only by a compliant, hardworking work force. Assembly workers who saw Land Rover swing into profitability in 1986 and report a £7 million profit in the first half of last year are angered by management’s refusal to share more of that profitability. They had no illusions of what a lengthy dispute would mean. Mr Brown believed it could only bring “ruination. ”

“People will buy Japanese. ”

In Solihull, where the presence of a Japanese version of the Jeep seems pointed, his words ring horribly true.

Keith Adams

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