Archive : Car workers find the price of efficiency too high

By Peter Hetherington

In the shadow of the idle British Leyland car plant at Longbridge, which has the most efficient assembly line in Europe, groups of men speak bitterly of a tough working regime on the shop floor. There appears to be growing discontent. ‘The Japanese, over week or two ago were saying even they had more men on their lines,’says a 33-year old worker from the body shop in the club behind the complex.

‘If you have been doing a job say, for six months, they reckon you must be able to do it faster. And if you don’t hit the new target, they’ll discipline you – no messing.’

A shop steward in the dispatch section says he voluntarily left the track – as the assembly line is known -three years ago because he couldn’t stand the pressure. ‘My pay is down but I am happier man – those guys deserve every penny they earn and more. You wouldn’t believe the stick they have to put up with.’

A track worker in the trim section – regarded as the sweatshop – is equally forthright. ‘How would you like it if you had to put your hand up every time you wanted to go to the toilet its degrading.’

Austin Rover, BL’s volume car subsidiary, is fighting to improve its share in a cutthroat European and British market where there is considerable overcapacity -and the prospective arrival of the Japanese Nissan car plant in North-east England could serve to undermine BL further. Only the leanest and fittest will survive.

The constant drive for improved output means that every movement, every task at the Birmingham plant is regularly measured, evaluated and if possible, improved upon. But has Austin Rover pushed it too far too quickly at Longbridge, birthplace of the Austin, and are the unions at last on the attack after four years on the defensive?

Production there has been halted for more than a week in a dispute involving 300 crucial transport drivers who ferry equipment and components around the factory and deliver engines to the group’s other large assembly, complex at Cowley, Oxford. Almost 20,000 workers were laid oft as a result. They voted yesterday to return to work on Monday.

The dispute, the most damaging in the state-owned company for 10 years, began in support of a black worker dismissed for allegedly assaulting a white foreman said to have racially abused him. But it Inevitably developed into a classic trial of strength, between both sides, with the company clearly determined to reassert its authority after its success in crushing the power of shop stewards – reducing the role of unions in the process- and introducing the new regime arbitrarily three years ago.

Some point to Austin Rover still smarting over another strike last month involving 70O workers in the trim shop – the second of its kind in three weeks -when production of the Metro and the Mini was halted for more than a week. That stoppage, more than the current dispute, highlighted the mood in parts of the plant. It began when 12 workers who fit side windows to Metros were disciplined for achieving only 75 per cent efficiency as determined by, the industrial engineers.

They were given verbal warnings about their conduct, the first stage in a three-tier disciplinary procedure- and were supported 700 colleagues in their section. ‘We were just being pushed too far,’said one trim worker.’You can only take so much.’

The strike was called off when the company said 100 new jobs would be created to increase weekly Metro production to up 4,300 vehicles. But the men still have the verbal warnings recorded on their work files. In BL’s continued drive to become even more competitive- its output, at 55 cars per man year, is now more than double that at Ford’s Halewood plant – pressure on the assembly line is relentless.

Whereas five years ago the tracks were running for perhaps 65 per cent of total working time – there were hold ups for materials as well as breakdowns – today they are achieving runs of almost 100 per cent. If a worker has to leave the line –perhaps to go to the toilet or for medical aid, he has to wait until the foreman (himself under constant pressure from above) arranges a relief. ‘There is no respite,’says Jack Adams, the shop steward convener.’The pressure is constant.’

If the worker cannot reach his target, then, according to Mr Adams, he has got real problems. Mr David Buckle, Oxford district secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, which represents most Cowley workers, is more forthright,

‘Human beings are paying a very high price to achieve industrial efficiency – some of the people who are so ready to criticise should ask themselves what is happening to these workers.’

He says he knows of several supervisors who are receiving psychiatric treatment. The new regime, which critics claim, is creeping ominously close to a Japanese style non-union environment, has not been achieved without pain. After the abrupt dismissal of Mr Adams’s predecessor, Mr Derek Robinson, 4 1/2 years ago, the company moved swiftly to impose its own working practices by scrapping the so-called ‘mutuality agreements’ under which shop stewards were involved in almost every decision at plant level. The company foreman, not the shop steward, has now become the key figure on the shop floor. He is in charge of a zone of 25 or 30 people – a group similar to the contentious quality circle in Japanese car plants.

‘We have asserted the rights of management to manage,’says Austin Rover proudly.

‘While we are always prepared to discuss we will never again say ‘can we?’ those days are gone for ever.’

Austin Rover denies that it either anti-union or guilty of pushing workers too hard after those notable victories over the shop stewards. ‘We have to become more efficient – there is no question of us standing still,’ an official said.

‘But we strenuously deny we are making unreasonable demands.’

Workers – reluctant to give their names fearing disciplinary action – sometimes tell a different story; ‘It’s a young man’s job,’ said a man employed in the body section who stressed that he was opposed to the current dispute.

‘An old fella: of 63 has been working with us, and at that age they must have known he could not stand the pressure of the track. He had a bad heart and had to leave. That seems to happen to a lot of the old ones -put them on a job they can’t do so they will take early retirement.’

Even some moderate union leaders now argue that the industrial relations climate in Longbridge, and at the Cowley sister plant, is in danger off becoming so stormy that the company will have to take the initiative. But Austin Rover insists it is improving communications all the time through video presentations as -well as talks to groups of workers by Mr Harold Musgrove, chairman and chief executive of Austin Rover.

‘We have had three years of real hard line management,’ says Mr Alan Beddows, a full time official of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. ‘They have now achieved productivity levals that everyone can be proud of, but there is a danger that workers will say’enough is enough. ‘Everyone is getting fed up with the pressure.’

Much of the resentment is directed at a complex bonus scheme under which – it is claimed – workers can earn an extra £30 weekly. But it is a factory-wide arrangement, calculated on a four week cycle, as the workers under most pressure on the track complain it is arranged to penalise the hard workers. One senior shop steward linked it to a greasy pole and said it was only effective as a de-manning scheme.

‘The nearer you get the top the more grease they pile on. The only way you can make money is by shedding more labour.’ Nevertheless, the company says its average wages are the highest in the motor industry with earnings including bonuses, up from £88 to £141 in four years. The shop stewards put the average at £7 less. In 1982 and 1983, workers accepted 5.6 per cent on two occasions and unions will be looking for a substantial improvement this year whenwage bargaining begins shortly with a settlement due in November, ‘We have been through a period when everything has been thrown at us – its been pretty well impossible,’ says Mr Adams.

‘They imposed a whole range of things on the workforce and were very successful at de-manning – but you cannot motivate people with impositions and force for ever – they will not accept that – and the company are now reaping the results of those years.’

Next week the company’s latest model, a new compact Rover built in collaboration with Honda to replace the Acclaim, will be launched. There are now 3,000 in stock- 2,000 below target. Mr Musgrove has warned that the longer the strike lasted, the more serious the long-term consequences would be. It is a threat to familiar on a shop floor which lived through the Michael Edwardes years. This time the company is not threatening to close plants. It merely says it might have to reconsider making its own car components, threatening future jobs.

Keith Adams

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