Archive : Why Sir Michael bit the bullet


Outside the Longbridge plant 4,000 cheering engineers pledged their backing for Leyland , and voted to carry on working. Mr Roy Hill, who last year led a successful revolt against Mr Robinson and his shop stewards, asked the crowd: “Are you with me?”

They roared ” Yes.”

“Then stand up for yourselves and walk through the pickets,” said Mr Hill. So with V – signs they marched past jeering transport union men into work. And Mr Robinson ? He said last night he was ” bitterly disappointed” at the inquiry move which “will be seen by many trade union members as abdicating responsibility.”

Why Sir Michael bit the bullet
The decision last night to hold an inquiry into the dismissal of Mr Derek Robinson, the Communist chairman of BL’s unofficial combine shop stewards’ committee is unlikely to turn up anything which is not, already known about the disciplinary hearing at Long. bridge on November 19. But the agonizing which preceded it at the highest level in BL is unlikely to be documented. Sir Michael Edwardes and his top management were locked together for the whole of the preceding weekend debating the consequences of the recommendation by Mr Harold Musgrove, managing director of Austin Morris, that Mr Robinson, the most powerful single trade union figure in BL, should be sacked.

Mr Musgrove, like Mr Robinson, joined the company as a toolroom apprentice at Longbridge and the whole of his subsequent management career has been spent in close contact with the shop floor. He initiated the sacking of Mr Robinson knowing full well that the official trade union machinery would have no alternative but to support Mr Robinson even if many full-time officials did so with a heavy heart. Sir Michael, his deputy, David Andrews, Ray Horrocks arid David Abell, the group’s car and commercial vehicle chiefs respectively, together with Pat Lowry, personnel’ director, were well aware of this when they instructed the Longbridge plant manager to go ahead with disciplinary hearings the following day. A senior Midland union official told me:

“When I first heard the news I could not believe my ears. My first thought was that this was an emotional outburst by Edwardes angered by the shop stewards’ opposition to his recovery plan. Then I remembered Pat Lowry, a former long serving official of the Engineering Employers’ Federation and a very experienced negotiator. I knew he would have spelt out all the consequences and yet Edwardes still went ahead. I knew then that this was a make or break attempt to end shop steward authority at BL. I thought ‘my god, if things are that bad Edwardes must be looking for a way out’.”

But to suggest that Sir Michael is looking for an excuse to get out of BL before it collapses is to ignore the man’s track record since he joined the state owned group two years ago. He has not backed away from a single major issue and to him these issues were obvious long before he joined. In his view they had been allowed to become endemic by weak management bowing to shop steward militancy in the face of recurring cash flow problems. Too much attention has been focused on the shop stewards opposition to the recovery plan as being the catalyst for the present confrontation.

Of equal importance to many observers is the 85-page document which the unions have been told must be accepted before the company will go ahead with a 5 per cent basic wage increase and in incentive scheme which could provide an additional £15 a week. This document has been described as ” an employers’ charter “.

It calls for the most sweeping changes ever attempted in zealously guarded working practices. It seeks to introduce full mobility of labour, the end of inter-union demarcation boundaries, free access for time and motion men and the creation of a new breed of worker retrained as an all- rounder and able to perform tasks previously shared by members of several rival unions. Without these changes Sir Michael has said he cannot pro- duce the new £275m Mini Metro with prospects of real profits nor can he achieve the minimum 20 per cent improvement in productivity which must accompany the 25,000 lost jobs and plant closures.

But lost jobs, plant closures and new working practices are very strong medicine indeed. Predictably, it was like waving a red flag at the combine shop stewards bull. They were prepared to charge in with a concerted plan based on sit-ins and refusal to accept transferance of work from one plant to another when the bull’s head was cut off by the sacking of Mr Robinson and its legs shackled by the threatened dismissal of his fellow officials on the combine committees.

However much BL insists that opposition to the recovery plan was the sole reason for its action it is impossible to separate the shop stewards role from the success or failure of both the plan and the sweeping changes in traditional methods of working. BL spent nearly £2,000m last year-divided among 7,000 firms. In addition to the big ten component groups it accounts for 15 per cent of British Steel Corporation’s total sheet steel output. The company estimates that for every 1,000 of its own employees there are another 1,500 “dependents” in outside component firms. In other words a total of 375,000 jobs are at stake. No one is suggesting that all this could just disappear overnight if the present confrontation continues for a long period.

The insidious erosion of BL which has taken place over the past 20 Years will simply be speeded up. Or will it ? Can this be the cause celebre the Conservative Government is said to be seeking to put BL up for sale ? And if it wanted to follow that course could it find buyers? A car plant is only of interest to another car maker and who would want to buy the Austin Morris volume car business with all its problems?

Until last summer it had been widely suggested that the profitable Jaguar Rover Triumph executive car subsiduary would find ready buyers. Since then another sharp, increase in fuel prices and serious problems with the new Castle Bromwich paint plant have; in the words of one JRT executive,  “made the wheels come off and led to the break up of JRT.”

For all practical purposes it is now three quite separate operations -Jaguar, Rover-Triumph and Land Rover. In theory at least this further fragmentation should facilitate sales to private buyers. In practice disentangling one piece from the whole is almost impossible.

Leyland Vehicles is a different proposition. Its 14 factories, some already earmarked for closure, are quite separate from the car operations. A northern businessman is already attempting to form a consortium to make a bid. The big component groups such as GKN, Lucas and Automotive Products were sounded out months ago as possible purchasers of bits and pieces of BL. They were asked to indicate what they would be interested in if sales were contemplated.

Their response was far from encouraging for the ” sell it off ” lobby. They took the realistic line that they were trying to reduce their dependence on the motor industry’s waning home market ,not increase it. Against this background the only course for Sir Keith Joseph, the Industry Secretary, if the day goes against Sir Michael and he resigns, would be to refuse further government aid. At a time when BL’s only hope for the future is to accelerate a long overdue new model programme the drying up of government funding would be like a fatal hemorrhage.

These are the issues which Sir Michael spelt out yesterday to the engineering union leaders, before they decided to pull back from the brink and introduce an inquiry to give both sides breathing space.

Keith Adams
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