British Leyland is the largest vehicle manufacturer in this country. In six months it has lost between £8,000,000 and £10,000,000 through strikes. Wage increases have cost £12,500,000.
Throughout its sixty-seven factories some 200,000 men are employed. They belong to a multiplicity of trade unions. The vast problem of untangling a confused wage structure that has grown haphazardly, of bringing peace and profit to the industry, lies much in the hands of two men: a Communist shop steward and a newly-appointed director of industrial relations. Here, Mirrorscope examines the men at the wheel.
Interview by Richard Sear
John Patrick Lowry at 50, is director of industrial relations to the British Leyland group and was brought in to sort out its labour problems by chairman Donald Stokes. Brought in, he says with a wry smile, on April 1 this year. The job is only the second he has had and he calls it ‘a reincarnation.’
‘Pat’Lowry stands over six feet, slim and bald. His most noticeable feature is his startlingly clear grey eyes. Management is written all over him. In an executive suite overlooking Berkeley-square he folds his nattily dressed figure into a chair and says:
‘If there is something that has to be done, I am available on the deck to do it. I am not unaccustomed to working through the night if the situation demands it. And, if necessary for days on end.”
His background is firmly middle-class. He lives in a four bed-roomed detached house in softest Surrey, sends his two children to private schools and is keen on fly fishing. Within him are the qualities of the barrister, often referring to ‘ my brief,’and the actor in that he is a theatre lover, a founder member of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
His height, unflappability and charm combine to make him unconsciously dominate, although he is a complete stranger to the
clanging jungle of the shop floor. As the son of an official of the Ministry of Labour, he emerged from grammar school at eighteen to join the Engineering Employers Federation as a clerk and stayed for 23 years to become their top troubleshooter.
When the war broke out he found himself a private in the RASC driving an Austin truck which he abandoned at Dunkirk.
‘I was one of the millions who had an unspectacular war,’he says. But again he moved forward, step by step to a commission.
Returning to his job with the EEF he decided that School Certificate credits in Latin and Greek wouldn’t fit him for a postwar world, and went to night school. After two years at the London School of Economics he gained a Bachelor of Economics (Commerce) degree.
His basic qualifications are ‘half a lifetime of dealing with people — mainly trade union officials—in industry.’ But he admits that ‘the negotiator is only as tough as his brief.”
‘Toughness and weakness as a negotiator depend very much on from what position you are negotiating.’He has the reputation of being ‘a nice guy a hard negotiator and a bright one who never loses his cool.’
His first effort at British Leyland to set up a joint council of management, union officials and shop stewards in the group, was
rejected this month. ‘But I have the patience and willingness to go on endlessly.’His problems are basically the same as shop steward Dick Etheridge’s—to straighten out the tangle of wage structures. But for Lowry it is to come up with a formula that will suit the management.
‘We have to persuade people that the British Leyland merger was not a bonanza, with a vast amount of money available. I suppose I am an idealist in the sense that I can draw up an ideal solution to British Leyland problems. But I am sufficiently practical to know these ideals are not capable of achievement in the short term, perhaps not in the long term.”
‘Everybody knows that British Leyland can’t take up its bat and wickets and play somewhere else. Therefore we have the task of persuading people by whatever means possible. If we don’t succeed. British Leyland will not remain a viable international organization.’
Richard Albert Etheridge at 60 is Chief Shop Steward at the Austin-Morris factory, Longbridge, Birmingham, which has a 20,000 labour force. He is also Convenor ot the Shop Stewards Confederation in the group and secretary to the twenty-four unions.
Thus he is probably the most powerful man at shop floor level in the British Leyland complex— and a member of the British Communist Party Executive. A man who is known as ‘Uncle Dick,’ with mild blue eyes peering over spectacles. cropped grey hair and fingers with cracked nails blackened by oil. He has lost one of them in a capstan lathe.
His voice carries the slag-neap tang of the Black Country, without the acidity of an Enoch Powell. He is fluent, persuasive and liable to quote the Rubaiyal of Omar Khayyam in defence of his principles, or splat a four letter word to shut up a shop floor meeting.
‘I’ve been a Communist for a long time,’he says, ‘and I don’t believe in religion. But I accept Christian ethics and British institutions such as Parliament and the freedom we have.
Do you know Kipling’s ‘If’? I like Kipling but not jingoism.”
‘Let us make it quite clear. I obviously want to see British Leyland successful—the more profit they make the more we can get for the workers.”
‘I am a British first—no, a Black Country man first—and I am worried about the threat of American domination in our industry.’
It was not until young Etheridge’s early twenties, having failed in his bid to become an analytical chemist, that he was drawn to Communism.
‘My father set up a café opposite New Street Station in Birmingham and I joined him there to work at night. It was the time of the Depression and people used to come into the café who were destitute.”
‘The unemployed were persecuted by the police who used to come in the cafe and ask me to send them out, but I wouldn’t. I was moulded by the social evils existing at the time.’
The young Etheridge tried to get into the RAF when war broke out and was failed for all the Forces on medical grounds. The cafe was bombed in 1940 and he joined the Longbridge factory as a night worker. Immediately he fought for equitability in shift work, that workers should not permanently be on days or nights, and won. Within six months he was made a shop steward at 2,s. 6d. an hour. Now he gets 32s an hour.
There were many battles. Twice he stood as Labour candidate in local municipal elections—’once I had my windows smashed by Tory women’—and stood for Parliament as a Communist but lost his deposit. ‘I have headed the marches in all the strikes we have had over the years. I don’t know how many, but I must have marched more than 1,000 miles.’
He collects Black Country humour and has his own wit. ‘You have never been on strike before ? ‘, he recently asked one
British Leyland factory.
‘Never mind, you will be surprised how you will get to like it.’
He lives at Halesowen Stalls and his wife is a Black Country girl. She is Church of England and, he says, a Trade Union widow. He has two sons, one a lecturer at Aston University and another, an engineer. His daughter is a hospital sister.
A solid man, by no means ruthless, yet admittedly stubborn. A shrewd tactician and, on his own ground the equal of any boss, the match for any wildcat striker.