BL was yesterday taking a tough line with strikers at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham on the eve of crucial peace talks. The company has said that its mass-production operations may close because of the strike boy 1,500 workers. An official added yesterday: “We are standing firm. We run the factory and we have no intention of abdicating responsibility.”
The strike started 10 days ago over the dismissal of eight members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union for alleged involvement in a disturbance at the Longbridge plant, which produces Metros and Minis. The union, which denies that the men were involved, has since made the strike official and is calling for an independent inquiry into the disturbances, with a third party as chairman. The two sides are due to meet officials of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in London today.
A company official said yesterday: “The union demand would be like calling in a man off the street to run the factory for us. This is a disciplinary matter which we regard as a matter of fact. If it was a matter of opinion, maybe we would call in a third party. There would be no abdication of responsibility. Tomorrow we shall again offer to rerun the appeal hearing held after the men were dismissed. The Metro is so vital that the future of BL’s car division will be in peril if the strike goes on”, the official said.
He estimated that the strike had cost the company about £20m in lost sales. Workers at the Longbridge plant have been sent letters telling them that unless they report for duty when the factory reopens after the Christmas break on January 5 they will be deemed to have dismissed themselves.
Part of the letter, from Mr Stanley Mullet, operations director at Longbridge, states: “Because we cannot recover from a protracted or widespread strike, and in our financial position that means days rather than weeks, we must bring this dispute to an end now. I must therefore tell you formally that, unless you return to normal working immediately after the holiday, you will be considered to have repudiated your contract of employment which will then be treated as terminated.”
In these circumstances you will not be entitled to any redundancy pay or payment in lieu of notice. I urge you to consider your position very carefully indeed and to return to work on January 5, 1981. We have the chance with the Metro to assure our own future for many years to come. Good levels of bonus have started to be earned.
We have been recruiting at a time when most firms are laying off or making people redundant. We should not throw all this away by a damaging dispute. If there is a return to work, the employees disciplined still have procedural and statutory channels open to them if they feel they can justify their actions. There is no need for this pointless strike. We have never allowed intimidation to be the order of the day at Longbridge and we never will. Whatever the consequences are on the future of the company, we shall not give in to industrial action on this issue.”
Mr Brian Mathers, the union’s Midlands regional secretary, said yesterday that he hoped a civilized solution could be reached at the Acas talks. “We will try to find a way out of this dispute. I hope the company will as well. We have offered to submit the case to an independent third party and we were amazed when the company refused to accept it.”
Mr Dennis Boyd, the chief conciliation officer at Acas, and other officials will see both sides separately this morning and will hope to get them together later in the day. Mr Stanley Orme, opposition spokesman on industry, said yesterday that the Government would get his full support if it agreed to endorse BL’s latest four-year, £1,200m corporate plan. Speaking on the BBC radio programme, The World This Weekend, Mr Orme said that support for the company was absolutely essential.
About a million jobs were at stake and in the Midlands 15 per cent of employment was linked to BL and the motor industry. Mr Michael Grylls, MP, vice- chairman of the Conservative industry committee, said on the same programme that BL should be split and the most successful activities, such as Rover, salvaged. The public money put into BL since 1976 had been used to finance losses, he said. BL expects to sell at least 5,000 more cars next year than in 1980 despite predictions that the total United Kingdom market for new cars will fall by about 6 per cent to 1,420,000.
The state-owned motor group’s 1981 sales targets remain confidential but it is understood that a market share of 20 per cent is considered attainable and that as much as 24 per cent may be possible. The latter would return the company to its 1978 Position, when it had a market penetration of 23.5 per cent with sales of almost 374,000 cars.
Last year BL’s sales dropped to 336,984 (19.63 per cent) and for 1980 the company is expecting sales to total 279,000, which will represent 18.5 per cent of the market. Much of the optimism for next year is based on the success of the Metro, which is taking about 10 per cent of United Kingdom car sales.
Since its launching in October, well over 15,000 Metros have been sold. With Ford having just introduced two new low-priced Fiesta models, price cuts by Fiat and the launching of cheaper Vauxhall Chevettes, the scene is set for a fierce new year battle in the small car sector. But it is unlikely that the BL-inspired price cutting war of the early months of 1980 will be repeated in 1981. A BL official said: “We are quite optimistic for 1981; we now have the models to attract people back into the showrooms.”