Archive : Three years’ hard labour

By David Wilson

After losing £100 million worth of production from the three-day week British Leyland is the only car manufacturer which has gone on losing output through industrial disputes. At Cowley, Oxford, 2,500 men are on strike and 4,000 laid off, 7,000 Marinas have been lost, worth £7 million. In Birmingham 2,600 workers are laid off and Mini production halted by a strike at SU Carburettor.

It is a grisly picture for a company with a derisory share price of 12p and little prospect of profitability this year . And it obscures one of the great industrial dramas of our time , the virtual abolition of piecework in British Leyland’s 59 factories over the past three years. The reform of payments began in January 1971 when management at the Cowley factories ignored the protests of shop stewards and simply told workers that piecework had ended; instead, they would be paid £1.05 an hour , like it or lump it. The men liked it.

Within days, the Rover works at Solihull had switched. Next summer, the Swindon body plant and Triumph in Liverpool changed, then the main Longbridge works in Birmingham. Finally Coventry fell when, the Standard-Triumph and Jaguar factories accepted new payment systems. Now 91,000 of British Leyland’s 93,000 hourly paid workers , 97.5 per cent , have abandoned piecework. Counting the bus and truck division , the figure is 103,000 out of 121,000 hourly-paid workers or 85 per cent.

It is a formidable achievement, since the militant left opposed the change tooth and nail. Piecework , ironically forced on a reluctant union movement in the 1920s, formed the basis of a shop steward’s power. Every time a job changed, a new rate had to be negotiated. Not surprisingly, managers joked wryly that the only useful maxim was : ‘If at first you don’t concede, try, try and try again.’ The Unions sacred principle of mutuality where unions agreed any change in materials , methods and means of production—grew out of piecework. So did the high earnings of men on the line.

In October 1970, six months after Pat Lowry was appointed to take charge of group industrial relations , the abolition of piecework – was put high on a list of policy objectives. One month later , a top-level meeting of officers of the Transport and General Workers Union, including Jack Jones, made it possible. They decided that flat-rate payments were acceptable as long as mutuality was retained. Last month, British Leyland formulated a new list of policy objectives. The document is top secret, but its three main targets show that the real battles for management must now begin.The targets are :

  1. achieving more commitment by employees to the company.
  2. reaching tha same levels of efficiency as competitors.
  3. developing long term fire prevention policies instead of fire-fighting.

All three objectives point to problems which stem from the assault on piecework ; the incidence of strikes remains disturbingly high and the level of output is disturbingly low. In fact, if the attaining of the 1970 objectives is to be counted a success, British Leyland must now prove that it was not a pyrrhic victory.

The cost of the switch-over has undoubtedly been steep. The launch of the Marina at Cowley , Leyland had vowed it would never be built under piecework–was hampered by strikes. Equally, the launch of the Jaguar XJ 12 was ruined by an 11-week strike against the introduction of measured day work.

But management in both cases did not concede and when the Allegro was launched last summer , there were only minor hiccups. Nor has it been a cheap operation. Ford and Vauxhall have always had measured day work and Chrysler switched from piecework by 1969; because it was last to make the change, Leyland had to establish the highest production rates in the industry. But the cost has not been as astronomical as pessimists feared.

The chart shows remarkable consistency of rates from one Leyland plant to another, and roughly comparable rates with Chrysler , if not Ford and Vauxhall . Man for man on the total payroll, Leyland pays less than its competitors . Crudely compared , the average annual pay for all Vauxhall employees rose from £1,618 to £2,107 between 1970 and 1972; for Ford , from £1,992 to £2,574;and for Chrysler , from £1,619 to £2,192 . For Leyland it rose from £1,474 to £1,919 and to £2,218 last year.

The strike record during the transition has also been bad. ln the four years from 1970 until last year 178,000, 106,000, 170,000 and 173,000 vehicles have been lost. But some of British Leyland’s worst losses stem from external disputes among suppliers. Last year the most damaging shutdowns were the result of strikes at British Road Services and Rubery Owen.

Both Lord Stokes and Pat Lowry publicly console, themselves that the man-hours lost from internal disputes in 1973 were 41 per cent down on 1972 , 5,939,747 hours compared with 10 million. But the real weakness of British Leyland is the output achieved per man. It is the lowest of the industry and this is not solely the consequence of under-investment over the years.

Performance has fallen with the removal of the piecework carrot. At Cowley. the problem is most acute; the current dispute, which has stopped Marina production, results from attempts to restore the speeds of the assembly lines, with job targets charted by industrial engineers. Management was so determined to launch the Marina on measured day work, that it chained itself to the millstone of mutuality, virtually as demanded by the TGWU.

“Man-assignments shall be mutually agreed”, the agreement reads.” Standard performance, i.e. effort, shall be mutually agreed on the basis of normal output without over-exertion , with due consideration to fatigue , and the need for an agreed amount of personal time. ”

Changes in effort or manning, mobility and relief, times were all lumped under the heading of mutuality. It appears that performance fell by at least 25 per cent. At any rate, a second line had to be installed to get the required Marina production of 5,500 a week. Recruitment was heavy, but stopped last winter , with the fuel crisis. Line speeds were cut from 35 to 25 cars per hour, after three-day working and when management tried to restore them to 30 two weeks ago, the assembly plant struck.

The men argued that 800 workers had left Cowley and manning was now inadequate. But they also objected to the presence of that new breed of technician , the industrial engineer , armed with white coat, clipboard and stopwatch. In three British Leyland factories, industrial engineering has been opposed. At Standard – Triumph in Coventry, programme schedulers refused to do the work because of their own pay dispute. At Swindon last year, the press operators struck over relief times worth a fraction of a penny. Some 650 men wanted an extra 65 seconds of relief time per day for .monotony, on top of the 1.62 minutes for personal needs. 1.30 minutes for fatigue and 65 seconds , for sitting-down after standing too long. But the centre of opposition is Cowley. Time and motion is a callous job.

“Both hands should not be idle except at rest periods , hands should work in curves, hands should be removed from all work which could be done by other parts of the body.”

Triumph workers were told , but it is a tool which management cannot ignore. The unions accept this in the national engineering agreement. Even Communlsts like Dick Etheridge , the Longbridge convener so reviled in the 1950’s, accepts the stopwatch in his plant, just as he accepts job valuation. But the Cowley assembly workers, with their mutuality clause, have said no.

Union officials see the solution in a return to some form of incentive bonus. David Buckle, the TGWU district Secretary for the Cowley body plant , says: “Workers will not give piecework effort for day wages. If the employers cannot win on industrial , engineering, we will get some form of bonus within two or three years. Then we will have achieved one of the union’s primary objectives , getting a high basic rate with high security and incentive payments.”

Already Chrysler at its Ryton assembly plant have restored a small bonus and in Standard-Triumph , Coventry, Leyland left a 10 per-cent bonus element in the £46 to £54 production rates. But Lowry is adamant: “We have, got to make the new systems work,” he says.

“We have got to make supervisory skills adequate to achieve our targets. Measured day work has had three years of operation at most and it would cause demoralisation among managers if we changed again. ”

Three further problems have emerged with measured day work : the demand for parity between plants, rivalries between grades, and the desire for meaningful income security. Under piecework , no one knew What they would earn from week to week, let alone year by year. But with flat-rate wages, comparison is easy.

Company compares itself with company, plant with plant , toolroom workers with men on the line. While inter-company parity is still a rallying cry for the unions, Leyland has reached a modus vivendi between its own plants. Each complex can make its own pay offers, but first they are vetted by the group personnel department to ensure that basic common conditions obtain.

Lowry sees this strengthening of the industrial relations role in the corporation as the most important achievement of the 1970 policy objectives. He kept Leyland in the Engineering Employers Federation to maintain the protection over such things as the length of working week; and holidays: But local autotomy remains in fixing wages and in practice measured day work settlements have fallen within a consistent range.

The unions accept that interplant parity is a non-starter, if plant bargaining, the paramount objective is to remain. In fact , in issues where companywide policy seems sensible, like pensions and insurance cover , the conveners have preferred local autonomy.

“The entire issue of parity has lost its emotive connotations over the past year, in British Leyland.” Moss Evans , the national organiser of the TGWU, said.

The whole issue, however could be revived if Leyland leaves the Engineering Employers Federation. The company would then need group agreements with the unions to avoid being picked off plant by plant on issues like the 35-hour week, or four weeks holiday. Comparison between workers –the old differential problem–has also been highlighted by measured day work. Craftsmen often used to tolerate the high earnings of semi-skilled piece-workers, because of the insecurity of jobs on the line. Now they see themselves getting little more, or the same as people without their skills or expertise. At Chrysler , the toolroom got staff status to appease their wounded pride. But strikes by electricians and millwrights for similar treatment soon followed.

In Leyland, this predominance of the TGWU, essentiallty a production workers union, has exacerbated this problem. At Cowley the TGWU has achieved a ‘second to none’ principle for production workers. This means they get the same earnings as craftsmen and they demand identical conditions; in effect it also means that the TGWU negotiates for the craft unions and if membership increases on the way, Jack Jones will not complain.

The TGWU’s power at Cowley is in large measure an historical accident. William Morris; later Lord Nuffield , recruited his labour from the farms, shops and college servants of Oxford and strongly resisted union organisation. But when he needed an associated body plant, later Pressed Steel had to attract labour from the unionised parts at Britain. One Josh Murphy, an ex-Rotherham coal miner , duly began to organise the body plant and asked to join the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He was refused , because he was unskilled. So he turned to the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon, the engineering workers president , is still complaining at the ensuing blitz on his Midlands membership.

The final problem of measured day work is to make the system live up to its promise of giving true income security. Some of the bitterest strikes have been over lay-off pay, where workers are made idle through no fault of their own. Lowry insists some exclusions are needed to prevent collusive bargaining where some workers could strike without fear of consequence to their fellows on guaranteed wages. Moss Evans sees the issue of lay-off pay in all motor company’s as a major battleground of the future.

Present lay-off pay is usually 80 per cent of grade rates but limited to 14 to 28 days a year and it is seldom given for disputes in allied plants. While me unions would like staff status for all workers, thereby ensuring payment when unable to work, Lowry will only move along this road in small carefully measured steps.

The reforms of British Leyland’s first six years as a corporation are considerable. Piecework is virtually gone; company dispute procedures have been set up; job evaluation has been accepted and to a lesser extent, industrial engineering. With Lowry’s appointment to the board of directors in 1972 industrial relations found its rightful place in company decision-making. But strikes persist and overmanning has yet to be tackled.

The problem now is how pursue efficiency at a time of extreme market uncertainty,and with income,security as a union priority. Leyland’s task is unenviable.

Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.