By CLIFFORD WEBB
In the midst of the toughest rationalization progrramme the car industry has seen, Sir Donald Stokes, vice-chairman and managing director of the newly merged British Leyland, faces a clash with an unofficial but extremely powerful union, body. Its outcome could affect the new giant’s labour relations for years to come.
A fortnight ago the executive of the newly formed British Leyland Joint Trade Union Committee, which claims to represent every plant in the group, issued an ultimatum to Sir Donald to meet them within three weeks to discuss his redundancy plans or face the possibility of a paralysing strike. On the very day the ultimatum was issued Sir Donald left the country for a much needed holiday.
When he returns on Thursday less than a week will remain before the ultimatum expires. How seriously should this threat be taken? The answer lies in the men making it. The joint committee was formed by an amalgamation of the existing unofficial Leyland joint shop stewards’ committee headed by Eddie McGarry and its B.M.C. equivalent led by Dick Etheridge. Although on the face of it the new body could be dismissed as just another unofficial grouping of shop stewards, it must be remnembered that over the years the car industry-and B.M.C. in particular has been forced to accord semi-official blessing to such bodies.
When faced with a similar ultimatum from the B.M.C. committee over the 12,000 men made redundant in the disastrous winter of 1966, Sir George Harriman, chairman of B.M.C. and now chairman of British Leyland, had little alternative but to meet thern. The veterans on the subject of union recognition the unofficial committee points out that Harry Urwin, the leading T. & G.W.U. official in the Midlands. was at the committee’s inaugural meeting.
Moreover, the meeting which issued the ultimatum to Sir Donald was held in Transport House, Birniingham, the Midland headquarters of that union. The committee’s two leaders are contenders to be reckoned with by any standards. McGarry and Etheridge are veteran campaigners -chief convenors in their own plants-who will not shrink from the awful effects of a showdown.
On the other hand they are experts at brinkmanship and know full well that a strike leader is only successful if he has accurately gauged the mood of the shop floor when he makes his call to strike. Sir Donald has let it be known that he intends to meet workers’ representatives from every plant, and in so doing has laid himself wide open to the shop stewards’ claim that he is trying to deal with plants on a piecemeal basis. By the time he has completed his redundancy plans, they say, it will be too late for workers to do anything about influencing the level of redundancies. They are all quite convinced that these will follow in a few months.
The committee’s real target in all this is recognition by the company of its existence as a body. Whether or not, as at present constitutec, it warrants its claim to represent every plant is incidental. Here is a group of shop stewards with enough influence to blight the whole future of management-labour relations in British Leyland at a vital period in its history. It does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that a formula can be found for at least unofficial talks.