LORD STOKES British Leyland boss
By Geoffrey Goodman
Everybody talks about it. Management fear it. Shop stewards tend to flaunt it. Trade union leaders respect, and also fear it.
Governments can no longer ignore it. And it is now becoming one of the most complex and insistent challenges of this new decade…
POWER ON THE SHOP FLOOR.
Of course, this power has always been with us, but not in its present form and never before so widespread. When Barbara Castle made her speech about shop floor power to the Institute of Directors last November she was simply acknowledging a fact of life.
‘Power,’Barbara Castle told those directors (who incidentally didn’t much like it)’ has returned to the grass roots whence it came.
‘We have got to accept again whether we like it or not,’
Barbara went on, ‘that workpeople have a veto which they are increasingly prepared to exercise; in other words that management these days can no longer function by the arbitrary exercise of traditional prerogatives — but only by winning the consent of its workpeople.’
Privately, the reactions to Mrs Castle’s speech among many top industrialists have been of criticism mixed with a sense of horror that she should have said such a thing — And some national trade union chiefs take the same view.
Some of the biggest companies in the land have refused to make any comment publicly. Their reasons; that the problem of shop floor power is now such an explosive one for their factory managements that to say anything publicly would only irritate the difficulties.
But not all top industrialists take this ostrich-like attitude, Lord Stokes, chairman of British Leyland Motors, who employs about 190,000 workers throughout Britain, faces up to this major challenge with courage and understanding.
‘I think that what Barbara Castle said has a lot of truth in it,’ Lord Stokes told me.
‘The trouble is that shop floor power at present is very often a negative power — the power to opt out of work.’
‘People these days just walk out because a place is too hot, or too cold. Sometimes it is quite irrational. Like a power to destroy.’
‘Well, you might ask, what are we as management doing about it ? We get a lot of trouble in the car industry because often people do not know what is going on. I am convinced that we need a better system of two-way communication between the shop floor and factory management.’
‘We don’t control our factories. The workpeople do. It’s their factory as well as the shareholders’and the management’s. So it’s essential that there should be two-way communication.’
‘And that means that management must explain what is happening and why.’
‘But at the same time workers, and unions, must accept more responsibility for their actions. They can’t have it both ways—power without responsibility.’Norman Biggs, chairman of British Esso, takes a similar view.
‘The unions themselves are now putting more power of decision making on to the shop floor. Quite rightly. But I wish sometimes that the unions would give more leadership.’
ESS0 is the firm that pioneered the famous productivity agreement at Pawley ten years ago. Now they recognise that the conditions of modern industry require even more advanced thinking. Mr Biggs is ready to accept what he calls ‘controlled experiments’ in worker-participation.
‘Unions, like management,’ says Mr. Biggs, ‘feel they need the goodwill of their members (and workers)—that is why power is going to the shop floor.’
But all this calls for much better management, he added. ‘We need courage,’said the Esso chief,’If we are to tackle the immense social and industrial problems that face us in this decade.’ Yet not all industrialists believe that the kind of shop floor power we are now seeing is a good thing for the country or for industrial relations. Martin Jukes, QC, Director General of the Engineering
Employers Federation, criticized Barbara Castle’s speech.
‘She did nothing to assist industrial relations. Power has always been on the shop floor but in the past it was guided and controlled by the union leadership. Now there is a tendency in the biggest unions to push decision making down to the shop floor. I think this is dangerous. How are you to get national agreements observed if this is now to be the rule?’
Only a minority of industrialists appear to be ready to come to terms with the new—and in my view lasting phenomena of shop floor power.
There is still a deep-seated distrust of it among management. They are puzzled about what the union leaders who advocate it really want; and whether they know just where they are going.
And even some of the shop stewards I have talked to are disturbed about the spread of ‘irresponsible’ action.