by Clifford Webb
It had to happen at some time and it had to happen in the Midlands. But it has undoubtedly come too late. Workers at a Coventry car plant are trying to prove to management, by the sweat of their brows that the much criticized system of payment known as piecework is still the best method of obtaining high output in a mass production industry.
Triumph Coventry is the last remaining stronghold of piecework in British Leyland’s car companies. That is not to say that all the others are completely converted to a flat, day rate but at least the piecework barrier has been breached and the breach is widening every week. At Triumph the barrier remains intact.
A year ago management put forward proposals to replace piecework with a flat rate system similar to those introduced at the group’s other car factories. Since then there has not been a significant strike at Triumph and production has soared from 90,000 cars in the financial year 1969-70 to 127,000 last year.
Shop stewards who rejected the original flat rate proposals candidly admit that they are out to show management that piece-work can produce results every bit as good, and they say better than the new pay systems at Rover, Austin-Morris, Cowley and Longbridge, and the interim system now being converted into a permanent pay structure at Jaguar Coventry. The completion of months of protracted negotiations at Longbridge has switched the spotlight to Triumph.
The corporation’s central industrial relations staff under Mr Pat Lowry had done their utmost to avoid confrontation on more than one front at the same time. The 10 week strike at Jaguar last summer was unexpected and almost upset the timetable. Now with Longbridge out of the way and the new Austin, codenamed ADO67, under way, the way is clear to tackle Triumph. Mr Bill Davis, Triumph’s managing director, insists that he is not working to a timetable.
“I have made it clear that it is my intention to introduce a new pay system similar to those now operating at sister companies. But we have not wasted the 12 months since we put our original proposals to employees. A tremendous amount of work has gone on to improve communications between management and the shopfloor, to increase the ability of supervisory grades to cope with the new system and, most important of all, we have been learning from the teething troubles of the other companies. It is the completion of this vital preparatory work which will determine when we make the next move.”
When he arrived at Triumph from Longbridge just over two years ago the company was in the doldrums. Strikes and other problems had produced a substantial loss. Last year Triumph broke even and in the financial year just ended it made a profit. Doubts abouts its future have now been replaced by plans for major capital investment in new plant and machinery. I understand that in addition to its role as a member of the specialist car division Triumph will extend its operations to become a major supplier of engines and axles to other companies in the group.
In many ways Triumph is in a better position to make a flat rate work than its sister companies already converted. From top management to lowest chargehand all supervisory grades have been through at least two weeks intensive training. In this they have learnt from mistakes made elsewhere including Triumph’s own Liverpool plants where a flat rate was introduced as long as as May 1971. , But in the ultimate the 9,000 manual workers at Coventry will have the last say. As recentlv as six months ago shop stewards made it plain that any attempt to replace piecework entirely would lead to a confrontation.
Since then, however, there have been increasing signs that some stewards and rank and file workers were becoming resigned to the change. The fact that Triumph is now out on a limb as a piecework labour force has not been lost on employees. They – have also been impressed by the forthright approach which Mr Davis, a production specialist, has brought to a company which employees themselves admit was in a sorry mess from a labour relations standpoint.
At meetings with union convenors Mr Davis has spelt out Triumph’s future model and marketing policy over the next few years. He has related this to world car demand and estimated production capacity until 1975.
“I took them completely into my confidence “, he said.
“They now know how bad things were here. They now know that we are on the right path and that whether Triumph plays an increasingly important role in British Leyland or is relegated to the sidelines is dependent entirely on their cooperation.”
The problem remains, however that in the present trouble free climate at Triumph the longer he puts off the inevitable confrontation the bigger his profits will become and the stronger the hand the unions will have to play when setting the price to be paid for ending piece-work.