Archive : Labour’s woes in the UK

By Robert D. Hershey Jr

BIRMINGHAM, England – A soggy blue and white British Leyland banner hovered nearby as a knot of pickets poked at their fire and shuffled their feet in the slush, trying vainly to keep warm. “Bloody Liars”, said the defaced banner; that’s what B.L., the companies initials, stood for in the minds of these striking workers.

Some 19,000 of them from the Leyland plant here, the auto makers biggest facility, had been on strike since February 7th in another of the companies constant stream of labour disputes, which totalled more than 300 last year. This was a particulary serious one, for although it only lasted one week, it threatened Leyland’s entire production of Austin and Morris mass market cars and its hard won agreement to put all its 34 plants on the same pay scales.

It all seems so unnecessary – even tragic – and so typical of British industrial relations. The workers, of course, wanted more money, but the strike seemed not really to have been caused by the demand for an extra $20 a week in productivity bonuses, retroactive to November, though even that seemingly small amount of increased income is important to men taking home only about $125 a week.

Nor was the strike mainly a matter of principle, though the workers clearly felt they had been betrayed when management withheld the money because output targets were not met. The main reason for the strike was that Leyland had not made sure the workers knew what the productivity targets were. Almost unbelievably, the ailing $6 billion a year company that got $900 million of taxpayers money last year didn’t bother to tell its highly sensitive workforce what was expected of them.

A visitor to the huge complex, where West Germans are outfitting the plant that will build Leyland’s first new model in years, couldn’t help thinking of the movie in which Paul Newman played a convict on a chain gang in the South. “What we have here”, it was said of Mr Newman’s insubordination after he had recieved a particulary severe beating by the guards, “is a failure to communicate”.

A breakdown in the flow of information, of course, is not the only reason that Britain has so many strikes and other labour disruptions. There are left wing activists, overmanning and other restrictive union practices, technically inept managers, lack of efficiently placed investment, the “de-industrialisation” of a mature economy and more recently the inevitable collapse of a 3 1/2 year pay restraint policy.

To these, in Leyland’s case, is added the lingering problem of integrating the pay structures of literally dozens of companies that, over the decades, have been combined into British Leyland Ltd, now 99 % owned by the government. Residents in this part of Birmingham still refer to to the Longbridge works as “the Austin”, though the Austin Motor Company has had no independent existence since the early 1950’s.

But perhaps more than any other factor, the strike here was caused by those clogged lines of communication, mainly – but not exclusively- down from management to its workforce. The strike is an object lesson to managers everywhere of the importance of making sure that both the workers on the shop floor and the senior management know what is happening.

The class conscious British are particulary poor at this. Ordinary workers know it and so should any management. But it seems nothing happens. Vital information is conveyed almost by chance and personal contact between workers and managers is almost non-existent. Charles F. Boswell, a wizened 57 year old car seal sprayer who takes home $118 a week, cited it immediately when asked how such a devastating and self-defeating strike can happen. Not only are wages lost but the walkout cuts the chances for getting future productivity based parity payments.

“One of the essential things is communications,” said Mr Boswell, lighting another cigarette as he walked to his picket post in the late afternoon gloom. “There’s not one ounce of trust, not one ounce of integrity. Does anyone speak to us or come around and have a look ? No, we don’t even know their names.”

Even Britain’s Prince Charles has become aware of this flaw in the countries industrial relations. In a recent statement he said: “I have not the slightest hesitation in making the observation that much of British management does not seem to understand the importance of the human factor. I discovered during my recent visits that the problem of communication between management and shop floor frequently stems from a failure of communications within management.”

The Longbridge workers struck after management announced they would not get their parity pay because output fell short of 2,550 Mini’s and 1,300 Allegro’s a week.The company said the shortfall was about 30 % ; some workers say it was only about 100 cars. The main reason for the shortfall was that another Leyland plant at Drews Lane on the other side of town had a wildcat strike, which denied Longbridge vital components and caused the loss, management say, of 38,000 cars. A national truck drivers strike made things worse.

But Leyland, it seems, did not bother to tell the workers how many cars they had to produce. The future of Britains biggest exporter, which employs 180,000 people directly and 500,000 indirectly, was thus placed in jeopardy. Longbridge is crucial because the new Mini, on which the company is relying so heavilly, will be built there. This fact was not lost on the pickets, who for a few days barricaded the construction site where plant expansion is taking place.

“The first time we ever heard figures was on January 30th when the company gave them to the national joint negotiating committee”, insisted Derek Robinson, the strike organiser here. But then it was to late to meet the targets. Some would say that Mr Robinson, an avowed communist, is not a credible witness, but more than a dozen shop stewards and other workers agreed that the figures were slow in coming.

“No one had heard of any figures before last week, even supervisory people”, said a shop steward.

Leyland says it did produce specific production figures, though they were apparently in terms of cars per man rather than in numbers of cars. But it is clear this information never reached the union rank and file. “We didn’t say to any one group of workers, you must now produce so much’, and give them a set of figures”, admitted a Leyland spokesman at the Austin Morris division headquarters here. He said union leaders were given the information and “the onus was then on the unions to communicate that information to their workforce.”

This approach raises questions. Was it wise, for example, to rely on people who are one’s frequent adversaries to disseminate crucial corporate data ? Shouldn’t Leyland have used direct methods to tell its workers what was expected of them?

When the workers voted in December on the deal that would have raised their pay to levels at other plants, the ballot said that only the added Labour costs would “be paid for by increased productivity”. Since the workforce had been cut through attrition by more than 2,000 in the past year, was it not easy to assume that the targets would be met ?
What’s more, Leyland never came to grips with another basic issue, that of responsibility for outside strikes or acts of God like bad weather.

After the strike began, Leyland quickly took big newspaper advertisments to argue its case for ending it. One point it made was undeniable – that the targets were realistic since they had been frequently reached before.

J.A. Gilroy, operations director at Longbridge, said in a letter to employees after they walked out that “defined” targets were explained in detail to the Works Committee in November. He said their response was that the goals were not ambitious enough. But if indeed the targets were quantified, why did he not make sure there could be no confusion or misrepresentation?

Leyland is seemingly aware of its communication problem, which is rooted in the mutual labour-management suspicion bred over the decades. The company spokesman said that house organs and bulletin boards tended to be read cynically as the product of a “propaganda machine”. Looking back to before this episode, he observed, “it is fair to admit we were pretty slick on our ‘outfacing’ communications, but we were not communicating with the workforce efficiently.”

Last year, when the company reorganised, Leyland created new units to do just this. The top post in the Austin Morris division, however, went unfilled until this month, after which Ray Horrocks, the divisions managing director, made his first visit to Pemberton’s experimental section, and said he would be making regular monthly visits fromnow on.

But while Michael Edwardes, the South African native who took over in late 1977 as the head of British Leyland, was busy making public appearances and meeting with the press, the people putting cars together were not told about things affecting their paychecks. Sir Leslie Murphy, head of the National Enterprise Board, British Leyland’s owner, said during the walkout that if the company gave in “the ability to manage the company will be destroyed.”

It may seem an overwhelming job to restore British Leyland’s profits and public esteem, but a bit of well directed communication might go far to bring the two sides closer.

“The gap is immense,” said Mr Boswell, the seal sprayer, “it’s like the Grand Canyon.”

Keith Adams

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