Archive : Dick Etheridge

Former Longbridge convener Dick Etheridge dies.

Mr Dick Etheridge, who died on March 17 at the age of 75 was convener of shop stewards at the Longbridge motor works near Birmingham for more than 30 years and as such played a leading role in the often troubled industrial relations there from the days of the Austin Motor Company to those of British Leyland.

He was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and throughout his career took a tough line in disputes with the different managements. But in later years he took the view that strikes were not always in the interests of his members, and often used his influence to contain trouble.

Richard Albert Etheridge was born in 1909 in Halesowen, to a family with nail-making traditions. and worked in the family’s garage and cafe for a time before beginning work at “the Austin” in 1941. A few years before he had left the Labour Party for the Communist Party, largely because of events in Spain.

At Longbridge he rapidly became active as a shop steward. Before the war, the factory had been 90 per cent non-union, but the war provided active trades unionists with the opportunity to organize the large workforce because wartime regulations gave them security against dismissal. In 1945 Etheridge became convener of the joint shop stewards and by that time the majority of Longbridge workers were union members. Over the next few years a strangely ambivalent relationship grew up between Etheridge and Leonard Lord (later Lord Lambury), chief executive of the Austin Motor Co.

In the course of the frequent and often petty unofficial strikes they abused each other in public and in the press and yet each had a grudging respect for the other. In 1953, in the wake of the disastrous National Union of Vehicle Builders strike, Lord could have sacked Etheridge but did not do so. The 1956 BMC strike changed the distribution of power in the relationship between management and shop stewards. At issue was the company’s sudden announcement of a large number of redundancies. The shop stewards organized the strike very effectively, and when work resumed the Longbridge plant had become a virtual closed shop.

Within the Amalgamated Engineering Union Etheridge was treated coolly by the leadership for some years. They were concerned, both by Etheridge’s Communist allegiance and by the fear that he and other motor industry shop stewards were aiming to create a new industrial union which would have drawn away members from the existing unions. But in spite of hostility from that quarter and the fact that he had become a member of the national executive Committee of the Communist Party in 1961, Etheridge was elected lay president of AEU’s Birmingham West district in 1965; owing his election to the reputation he had earned as convener at Longbridge. And in 1967 the “old guard” in the AEU was toppled by a “broad left” Alliance in which the Communists took part.

Between 1969 and 1974 he was a vocal and active opponent of both Labour and Conservative legislation on industrial relations, campaigning in the AEU and the TUC and through the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions for an outright refusal to recognize any such legislation. Etheridge remained convener of shop stewards at Longbridge until 1974, when he was succeeded by Mr Derek (Red Robbo) Robinson.

For his last eight years he was concerned with negotiations over the system of payment at Long bridge. At stake was the abolition of piecework and the shop stewards, led by him, only agreed to its replacement by Standard Day Work when the principle of mutuality was conceded.

Etheridge was a forceful and articulate public speaker and his services were much in demand, not least on management training courses. He spoke not only of trade union matters, but also on the Black Country, which he loved with an exile’s passion. He is survived by his wife Lily, and their three children.

Keith Adams

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