The legendary Dick Etheridge, union convener at British Leyland’s Longbridge car plant, is retiring. Remarkably enough for a man who has been described as the most militant shop steward in the car industry, his bosses will mourn his departure as much as his workmates. For the truth is that for several years now Etheridge has played a highly responsible role.
Such is his standing with the volatile labour force employed in the biggest British Leyland car factory that his word is law. But more and more he has come to realize that strikes are not always in the interests of the men he affectionately refers to as “my lads “. It was not always so.
A former manager at Longbridge is said to have once told his secretary: “If that bloody man comes in here again keep him waiting for half an hour and then tell him I am too busv.”
Etheridge solved that one by taking the men out and then sending a message to the manager; “Now see who lies waiting.”‘
Etheridge held court in a wooden hut on land adjoining the plant. It is now a works car park. His “lads” used to recount with glee the number of times they had seen bosses sneaking in to await his pleasure. Today, as the only full-time shop steward at Longbridge, he has the permanent use of an office and telephone inside the factory and the industrial relations department “provides secretarial services when required “.
Etheridge, who will be 65 in December has been a Communist since 1929 “but not a Soviet Communist”.
In what he now refers to as the bad old days management and some news- papers tried to isolate him from his members by labelling him a “Red agitator”. But their attacks only served to strengthen his position. In recent years when journalists have chided him about his more mellow approach to management, Etheridge has answered: “Circumstances change and anybody who does not change along with them is no bloody good to himself or the people he represents. In the old days it was open war between them and us. I am not saying it is all love and kisses today but at least there is a lot more mutual respect.”
The man being tipped to succeed him is 46-year-old Derek Robinson, chairman of the engineering union’s shop stewards committee and a Communist like Etheridge.