Archive : Leyland’s last piecework outpost – Industry in the Regions

by R. W. Shakespeare

British Leyland’s long and difficult battle to reform its wages structure now appears to be moving into its final stage. The last big effort centres on the 8,500-strong labour force at the corporation’s five bus and truck factories in Lancashire, where Lord Stokes began his career in the motor industry as an apprentice in the 1930s.

There is irony in the fact that these plants at Leyland and Chorley which, until recently enjoyed a unique record for trouble-free labour relations, should have become the final outpost of shop-floor resistance to innovations which have been accepted after a struggle in militant car assembly centres like Cowley and Longbridge.

When Mr Pat Lowry, with a reputation as one of the outstanding talents in the labour relations field, was persuaded by Lord Stokes to leave the Engineering Employers Association in the late 1960s to become BLMC’s director of industrial relations, he walked into a jungle of wage bargaining systems. These were largely based on the long-standing piece-work and rate fixing processes. Mr Lowry made reform of wages structure throughout the corporation and elimination of piecework the first objectives of his new labour relations strategy.

In just over four years, from the starting point of fierce union resistance to change, and later ” imported ” union hostility engendered by the Industrial Relations Act and the various stages of incomes policy, the wage reforms were carried through in all the car plants. Workers in the huge Austin Morris complexes, in Triumph, Jaguar, Rover and elsewhere are all now operating under graded wage structures that give standard pay rates, with most getting about £50 for a 40-hour week.

Mr Lowry’s strategy has linked these changes to other innovations such as guaranteed lay-off pay agreements and a special procedure for settling disputes. In the light of experience, most trade union and shop-floor leaders are now persuaded that the changes were necessary Although a great many labour relations problems remain, and British Leyland has yet to find the answers to matching productivity with its new earnings levels they no longer stem from the eternal piecemeal bickering over price-fixing on the shop floors.

Only in the Lancashire factories does the piecework system still survive and even there shop-floor negotiators have come round to the point where there is an agreement in principle that a change is necessary. To a large extent, British Leyland has been the victim of circumstances over its negotiations in the Lancashire factories. But it has also had to contend with a much more effective and astute shop-floor leadership that developed in the past few years with the emergence of men like Mr Len Brindle, the convenor for the five plants.

The initial attempt by the management to push through wage reforms ran aground on the Conservative Government’s incomes policy. Within the restraints imposed, British Leyland could not meet the price being demanded by the shop floor for making the change. The Lancashire workers were in an extremely strong bargaining position. They had before them examples of the kind of terms conceded to car workers at Longbridge on the eve of Mr Heath’s announcement of the initial 90-day wages freeze.

In the end, British Leyland had to abandon its insistence on implementation of the new wages structure in Lancashire and concede a general wage increase up to the permitted ceiling. Last month after much bargaining the management again put its proposals on the table. They varied in one important respect from the type of wage deals made in the car plants. While envisaging a standard wage structure, they also left room for higher earnings geared to increased performance. These were again rejected because Mr Brindle and his colleagues insisted that British Leyland must concede the full permitted increase under Phase Three before terms for a new wage structure could be discussed.

There was a two week strike on this issue, which ended when British Leyland paid the general increases. But it also got from the union negotiators the acceptance in principle of a revised wage structure and a terminal date, September 16 for plant level negotiations. This turbulent period in the bus and truck factories has meant a testing time for Mr Geoffrey Armstrong, the young executive chosen by Mr Lowry from his London staff to take charge of negotiations. But now for the first time he can see some real hope that within the next week or two agreements will be reached.

Keith Adams

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