Archive : Stewards’ vote keeps Leyland strike going

By David Young

Shop stewards at a British Leyland components plant yesterday used their votes to reverse the decision of a meeting of more than 600 workers to end an unofficial strike, which has resulted in the lay-off of 11000 car production workers and the loss of cars worth £15m. The strike at the Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, plant of Alford and Alder, a subsidiary of British Leyland, began six weeks ago when the workers demanded an interim pavment of £10 a week.

At yesterday’s meeting, 309 men voted for a return to work and 295 to continue the dispute. Then the 21 shop stewards voted for the strike to continue and have now demanded an assurance that the men will get an immediate rise of £6 a week on return to work, although the original demand for a £10 a week rise has been dropped.

British Leyland said that the men’s pay was due for review next October. It has offered to begin negotiations as soon as the men return to work. At the moment 6,000 car workers are laid off because of the dispute, but by Monday when the annual holidays at some plants end, this will rise to 11,000, the number affected before the holiday period.

Clifford Webb on British Leyland

The Allegro had an unhappy launch. Once again there were the old Austin Morris nightmares, lack of adequate waterproofing, a crunchy gearbox and poor reliability. As a replacement for the successful 1100-1300 series it was short of the mark, and there were too many versions. It, too, is dependent on either an old push-rod engine, the even older A-Series 1300 cc, or the still under-developed 1500 to 1750cc overhead camshaft engine originally seen in the Maxi.

That model’s five-door, five speed concept has produced much controversy. among motorists. They are either immensely enthusiastic or bitterly “anti ” …Quite simply, the Maxi is not selling in large enough numbers to warrant the assembly line capacity it occupies in a mass production set-up. Only 14,180 were sold in the first half of this year. British Leyland must stop hedging its bets with too many possible contenders. Ruthless pruning to permit concentration on the smallest number of models is essential if it is to meet the established formula for success in this sector, huge production runs and low prices.

The Marina, that much-maligned attempt to beat the Americans at their own game of putting new bodywork on old mechanicals, has done a good job for the company. It gave it a contender in the fleet and hire car sectors dominated by Ford. More than 45,000 Marinas were sold from January to June this year. But the car is still utilitarian compared with some of the continental competition and badly in need of a facelift and improved interior fittings.
That brings us to the Mini, Sir Alec Issigonis’s remarkable brainchild.

A trendsetter for the entire industry, it is nevertheless a perfect example of failure to cash in on a brilliant design. It was never built in anything like the volume necessary to capture world markets, keep its prices down and send the competition, running for shelter. It has moved into profits only recently. The highest weekly output ever reached for the Mini was 5,000 in May, 1965, when it was being built at both Longbridge and Cowley.

Since 1970 all Mini assembly has been concentrated at Longbridge and the most produced since then was 4,100 a week in March, 1973. Although no official information is available, it is reliably reported that present output is about 3,500 a week. To put this into perspective we must look at production figures for the Volkswagen Golf. Production really got into its stride only last August and already 400,000 have been turned out. Weekly output is more than 10,000.

It is almost impossible to read anything about British Leyland without finding a gloomy reference to its strike-punctuated history of poor labour relations. And this article will be no exception. The Ryder recommendations on worker participation are no more than a hopeful attempt to solve them by a new approach. In that they at least show enterprise, they must be attempted. The plain fact is, however, that the shop steward movement throughout British Leyland has been out of control, so far as national union leaders are concerned, for more than a decade.

Whatever the outcome of present “behind the scenes moves to appoint a prominent union official to the new board it will not make one iota of difference to the militancy of shop stewards. Their proposed involvement through joint management- Worker councils and committees is already viewed with suspicion by the militants. They see it as an attempt to disarm them with imposed responsibility and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the unions are dragging their feet over the setting up of these joint bodies.

Without the joint bodies Mr Whittaker’s hands are tied. Any decisions made before their formation could well be unravelled – at great cost in time and money-if and when they begin to function.

Keith Adams

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