Archive : BL’s continued industrial strife

By R. W. Shakespeare

Car production was again the main casualty of the national overtime ban in engineering as the campaign in support of pay demands covering two million workers moved into its second week yesterday.

But for British Leyland the biggest concern is still internal labour troubles which have now cost more than £20m worth of lost car production, at the Austin Morris plant at Cowley, Oxford, since the end of the power crisis and. three-day week. All car production at Cowley was again at a standstill yesterday with 12,500 out of the total labour force of 18,000 laid off. The latest trouble centres on a strike by 150 transport drivers which is now entering its second week.

They are protesting about lay-off arrangements at the plant and also a management decision to withdraw recognition from a Transport and General Workers Union convener, Mr Alan Thornett. The Cowley plant could well be idle again for the whole of this week since the drivers are not due to meet again until Thursday and there are no signs of a negotiated settlement. Production losses are mounting at the rate of 1,200 cars a day and workers made idle are losing an average £45 a week in wages.

There are, however, some signs of a shopfloor reaction against the continued activities of militants at Cowley. Yesterday about 400 workers staged a demonstration outside the plant demanding an end to unofficial disruption and consequent lay- offs. And a group of wives of Cowley car workers also held a meeting and recommended their own form of strike action against husbands who stop work.

At the other big Austin Morris plant at Longbridge, Birmingham, the overtime ban caused several hours’ delay to the start of assembly line operations yesterday morning, because vital maintenance and servicing work had not been completed. This is normally done on an overtime basis. Some 3,000 assembly line workers who had to be sent home at midday on Friday, with the loss of 350 cars during the afternoon, so that maintenance duties could be started were recalled by mid-morning yesterday. In the afternoon production was back to normal. There were also “start up” problems in many other car and engineering plants yesterday morning because of the over- time ban, especially in those with foundries and heat treatment equipment.

A delegation of eight women, representing about 250 wives of workers at the strike- bedevilled British Leyland car assembly plant at Cowley, Oxford, were granted an interview with the plant’s director, Mr. John Symonds, yesterday. He told them that he could not accept their demand to disrniss militant trade unionists who, they said, were depriving their husbands of their livelihood.

The factory has been crippled by industrial disputes since Christmas. The present unofficial strike by 150 transport drivers, now in its third week, has led to more than 12,000 workers being laid off. It began because of a dispute over lay-offs during an earlier strike, but has developed into a dispute over the recognition of Mr Alan Thornett as a shop steward. Mr Thornett is deputy senior shop steward of the Transport and General Workers’ Union at the Cowley assembly plant.

British Leyland has refused to recognize him as a union representative. The car workers’ wives, who took part in yesterday’s demonstration and marched to the British Leyland factory gates, see Mr Thornett as their main enemy. They want him and the other militants removed. Their husbands do not want to strike, they maintain. With no money coming in, the wives say they are finding it increasingly difficult to meet household bills.

One said her husband usually brought home £45 a week. He has been out of work for a month, and they and their four children are living on social security benefits and on what she earns cleaning in the evenings. “The last time we went out was on New Year’s Day”. she said.

While the women were demonstrating, most of their husbands were at home. babysitting. I asked some of them what their husbands thought of their activities.

“Mine’s thrilled to bits”, one said. Others were less persuaded of such total rapture, but said they thought it a “good idea”. Not one thought her husband disapproved. The wives’ view was supported by car workers with whom I spoke, many of whom joined the march. A group of maintenance men at the factory gates who were still at work said they liked to see somebody doing something.
“The women are doing what the men really should have done “, they said. ” But what good will it do?”

Mr Symonds told the women’s delegates, led by Mrs Carol Miller and Mrs Margaret Whiffen, although the company was as anxious as they were to assure an early settlement, he could not jeopardize the management’s long-term relationship with the unions.  “This is not the time to go round sacking everyone who is a militant”. he said. After half an hour’s discussion, the delegates told the wives waiting outside that the meeting had been “a flop, a waste of time”.

Keith Adams

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