Why car unions are taking a strong line over ‘stop-watch overseers’ By Clifford Webb
The week-old strike which has shut British Leyland’s Cowley car plant is potentially the most dangerous since the 1971 confrontation over the change from piece work to a flat day rate. The outcome could have repercussions throughout the entire group. The issue is a simple one. Some of the Cowley workers refuse to work while industrial engineers are in the plant. In their own words they “have had enough of stop-watch over-seers “.
The company has an equally forthright answer: the introduction of industrial engineers was accepted in a formal document signed by senior shop stewards in December, 1971, and is an integral part of any flat-rate system. Similar changes in the method of working have since taken place at other British Leyland factories, including the biggest, Austin-Morris, Longbridge. Industrial engineers have been working at Long- bridge for several months, if not with the actual blessing of shop stewards at least with their reluctant acceptance. Any sign of weakness now by Cowley management could spark off trouble at Longbridge. And there are other British Leyland plants where industrial engineers have still to set foot.
The Cowley men are in an unhappy mood generally. It is claimed that the shop stewards behind the present stoppage are justified in breaking the industrial engineers agreement because management themselves have broken an agreement. One suggestion is that they are at fault for not making a pay increase due on February 2 and resulting from the annual review. The company has laid this red herring in a letter to all workers pointing out that its hands are tied until April 1 by the Government’s pay and prices controls.
The same letter also gave an assurance that the engineers would not be used to pinpoint excess manning resulting in redundancies, another shop stewards’ claim. Most Cowley workers admit that the acceptance of industrial engineers is inevitable. However, in their present frustrated frame of mind they are determined to make a show of strength. Yesterday, Mr George Turnbull, the head of the Austin Morris division and a deputy managing director of British Leyland, answered this criticism. He said:
“It is only by studying the work of individuals that we can ensure that work is allocated on an equitable basis. Otherwise some men may be carrying an unequal share of the load.”
The engineers were introduced early last year and completed a study of Marina production. Work was subsequently allocated on the basis ,of this. They were later withdrawn following protests from the shop floor Since then new Marina variants such as the estate car and vans have gone into production. Plans are also afoot to carry out a general expansion programme. Without industrial engineers this cannot be done efficiently.
Nevertheless, the men see little difference between the stop-watch holding time-and-motion man of the old piece-work days and the industrial engineer The fact is, however, that since the changeover two years ago, Cowley output has increased dramatically. In the preceding years it actually fell. The company claims that output per man is roughly the same or a little down on what it was on piecework.
They suggest the improvement has come about because the disappearance of piecework has removed the major cause of strikes. It has also considerably weakened shop stewards’ power and there are some grounds for believing that this dispute is an attempt by stewards to show management that they are still a force to be reckoned with.