Archive : Mission Impossible

By Edward Laxton and Philip Mellor

Work harder – or you will be sent home. That is the threat hanging over 600 British Leyland assembly-line workers at Cowley, Oxford. They have been told that unless they keep their agreement to complete 28.5 showroom-ready cars every hour, their shift will be abandoned.

The first shift, which produces Maxi and Princess cars, starts at 7.15 a.m. today. If they fail reach their target by 8.15 a.m they will be sent home. Tomorrow they will begin again… with the same threat hanging over them. The ultimatum, handed out at the weekend by plant director Des North, highlighted the bitterness between management and men at the company’s North Works.

Shopfloor staff blame management for low productivity at the factory. They point to antiquated equipment and shortages of components. And these, they say, make the 28.5 car target utterly impossible. Management say the fault lies at shop-floor level. They claim that absenteeism is widespread, particularly at the end of the week. A month ago a management report revealed that at certain times only eleven cars an hour were being produced – and seven of these were being rejected by inspectors checking faults- The main cause was pinpointed as absenteeism and management officials said privately: “The end of the week is a dead loss.”

‘When the men are paid on Thursday they clear off or don’t come back after lunch and they stay out on Frlday as well. On the night shift, as soon as some men get their pay they leave the factory, even in the middle of a shift. The single men or the young marrieds without children feel that the last three-tenths of their working week nearly all goes in tax. So it’s not worth their while staying on at the factories once their pay is in their pockets.”

Workers gave the other side of the story yesterday over lunch-time pints in the Bullnose pub in the shadow of the massive motor works. One of them, who gave his name as Joe and said he had worked at Cowley for fifteen years, said: “The management must have taken leave of their senses.”

‘There is no way that 28.5 cars an hour can come off the production line and the management know it.”

One worker who earns £49.20 a week on the Maxi trim line said “Men cannot make cars if the components are not there. We just haven’t got the materials.” Another worker gave an example of the failing production line. He said: “Two men are paid £57 a week to cut two slits into some carpeting for the Maxi because the manufacturers were given the wrong specification.”

“This has been going on for weeks and I wonder why the management cannot get the right carpeting in the first place.” Joe added: ‘What the management expects is a fantasy. It would be better if piecework and bonuses were re-introduced. In the Sixties, when Lord Morris was still in charge and we were on bonuses, we made £33 million profit in one year-and the workers profited as well.

“NOW we are on measured day work and the trouble has started. These days we are told that our cars are wanted by the public so our production lines should never stop—but we are not given the components and the company loses money. In Cowley there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians-and the ratepayer picks up the bill. If the bonuses were re-introduced the workers would make damn sure that the components were available, and such mix-ups wouldn’t happen. If the work is there, we will do it. ‘

Another worker added sourly: ” Ask the bosses why in the Sixties 33.5 1100’s could be made an hour on one line. The answer is: Piecework. If the management carry out their threat at this plant they will try it on at all their plants.” Shop stewards meet at Cowley later today to decide how to react to the tough new management line. One of them, engineering union convenor Doug Hobbs said: “It is true we signed with the management to produce 28.5 cars every hour on the Princess and Maxi lines. But a lot of the equipment used on the production line, such as lifting gear is ancient.”

As the argument went on yesterday, hundreds of cars were standing in the Cowley compound awaiting delivery. Soon the giant transporters will take them off to dealers. Whether the compound stays bare and windswept, or whether it is refilled with gleaming new cars, depends on how willing management and men are to reach an agreement.

The country will know at 8.15 a.m. today.

Keith Adams

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