By R. W. Shakespeare
Plans to reform labour relations in the British Leyland Motor Corporation met with a rebuff yesterday when 200 shop stewards at the Austin-Morris car body plant at Cowley, Oxford. “totally rejected” proposals to replace piecework with a new-payments system . The shop stewards. members of the Transport and Genera! Workers Union were unanimous in their rejection decision.
They agreed to negotiate with the management on improvements to the piecework system so that the most efficient use can be made of modern equipment. This is small consolation to British Leyland. Replacement of piecework is one of the key points of the new long-term strategy developed by Mr. Pat Lowrv, who was appointed Director of industrial relations earlier this year.
Mr. Lowry has almost completed his plans. It proposes replacing piece work, guaranteeing wages for men out of work because of strikes elsewhere and introducing a new dispute procedure which would mean British Leyland changing its Engineering Employers Federation status.
New joint negotiating machinery at company and plant level will aim at securing a greater involvement of workers in company objectives. Mr Lowry will, I understand, have the broad framework of his plans drawn up, possibly in the form of a discussion document to be put to the unions, within the next week or two. The main objectives of, the new labour relations strategy are much easier to anticipate than they will be to achieve. Mr Lowry’s view, is that an essential prerequisite to changes is what he describes as “a new style of management” across the whole of the corporation’s operations.
Mr. Lowry says: “We must be neither too paternalistic nor too materialistic in our outlook, but must try to find new ways of involving everyone who works in the corporation in the job that has to be done”.
He pins, his hopes on the painstaking pursuit of plant level and sometimes line level deals within an overall plan. The cornerstone of this strategy must be the elimination of the piece work system. This will be a piece meal, and long term operation; Piecework payments are the root of most unofficial strikes. The “package deal”, to which British Leyland is a party leaves the door open for workers to press shop floor claims for increases every time there is a change in product or even a slight change in working practice.
Shop floor resistance to changes in the payments system is predictable. The piecework system has produced high wage rates for certain jobs in certain areas because the workers involved have massive bargaining power. Moreover,some management men would be reluctant to see the piece work system go. It covers many, management inefficiencies and offloads responsibility to market place haggling between rate fixers and shop stewards.
Getting rid of this type of middle management thinking is closely bound up with Mr. Lowry’s hopes. For the time being British Leyland. is carefully avoiding the jargon phrase “measured day work” for the type of agreement it wants to get through. Union officials and shop stewards regard it as provocative and the pill has to. be coated in other word patterns like “a new payments system”.
Obviously it is going to be necessary to “buy out” the existing piecework arrangements. The strongest bargaining power in the management’s hands involves guaranteed payments during lay off. The demands for guarantees against losses of this kind are mounting. The recent deal in the Chrysler car plant at Coventry has set the pace for the rest of the motor industry.
Now British Leyland has stepped outide of the general agreement on lay-off pay made with the Engineering Employers Federation. It is telling its workers that any plant where a new payments system not based on piecework is accepted can have lay-off guarantees now. The guarantees would for the present be limited to lay-offs caused by strikes outside the corporation itself, such as a components supplier.
It would be folly for British Leyland to start paying for its own strikes.