Archive : The tribe that lost their heads

By Jane McLoughlin

The large majority of British Leyiand’s workers have voted against striking over the disputed pay parity deal. Not that this will make much difference in the end, because those plants which will almost certainly take further action can bring production throughout the company to its knees by their own withdrawal of labour. It is the works by works decisions which count , and most people at BL do not need a crystal hall to tell you which will be the most militant areas.

There is no criticism implied in their certainty. Simply all the efforts of the management to impose pay parity and encourage a team spirit between, say, Coventry and Birmingham or Cowley cannot hide the deepseated, almost tribal hostility of one factory for another , which leads not to competition to produce more, but to fierce haggling to be equally paid.

There are several reasons for this , but putting a cash figure on what the difference amounts to is not easy. The company pleads the wide variety of jobs done to avoid an average , but it seems likely that where the Department of Employment figure for a fulltime car worker per week is £90.70, BL’s average basic varies between £67-£84 for day shift workers. £89-£112 for nights. But the difference between the better paid plants of Jaguar, Rover Triumph in Coventry, and the lower-paid at Cowley or Longbridge or Common Lane at Birmingham is reflected only in the money that would have been paid to each to achieve parity, up to £15 a week for a Longbridge worker, compared to £2 for a Coventry Jaguar worker.

There are two reasons for this. One is historical. Coventry, where Jaguar and Triumph are concentrated, is the home of the British car industry. Back in the 1930s, the toolroom workers and other production workers were the creme de la creme , and with the Coventry toolroom agreement some 10 years ago, these workers were guaranteed a premium over every other skilled worker doing a similar job elsewhere in the country.

At that stage the difference was perhaps between £15 a week compared with £12 for a Cowley worker, but the proportion wages is higher than today where the difference may still be only a few pounds. So you might argue that the Coventry workers would complain and be the ones eager to strike – but their reluctance to do so is rooted in another gulf between the two areas. Jaguars, Rovers and Triumphs were traditionally up-market cars, lower volume than the Austin-Morris mass produced vehicle , and the workers considered themselves craftsmen as compared with production line skilled mechanics.

At the very least this led to greater plant and name loyalty in the speciality car plants now represented by Jaguar Rover Triumph. On the other hand , Austin and Morris at Longbridge and Cowley needed more men, less skilled. Aiming at mass-production techniques from early days, they paid for unskilled or semi-skilled men producing fast but not to such a demanding standard. The other element which has led to the wide differences between BL workers from plant to plant is that Coventry was the Mecca of skilled workers ; they were well paid and there was competition for their services whereas the more mass production orientated Longbridge, though, had more people to choose from , as indeed had Cowley, where there was little comparable work available.

Lord Ryder tried to make BL one company: Michael Edwardes has split it into what would seem emotionally compatible groups , but nothing is going to alter the fact that between each plant each model and each area there is a tribal hostility fought out over wages which is unlikely to make a one for all and all for one policy, work.

Keith Adams

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