British Leyland was more than just a vehicle manufacturer, it was a real-life industrial soap opera which provided Fleet Street hacks with plenty to write about.
In this occasional series Ian Nicholls revisits some of these stories, using the newspaper articles of the time as the main source of information. Did the media have it in for British Leyland? Judge for yourself…
We may as well start with the most notorious of these stories and, perhaps, the one most people remember: the case of the employees sleeping on the night shift. What exactly happened and when are not easy to decipher.
The story first hit the headlines on 12 November 1979 when it was revealed that 14 night shift workers had been caught sleeping at a British Leyland plant. The men were found tucked up in sleeping bags when management swooped on the priming shop at the Range Rover plant in Solihull, near Birmingham.
After two days of disciplinary hearings and appeals, BL dismissed 13 Land Rover car workers, who had been caught sleeping on the night shift. A Supervisor who was sleeping was also dismissed, along with a Foreman. The company refused to comment while a hearing was still continuing into charges against a Superintendent.
Fleet Street inside information
After a tip-off by the News of the World newspaper, senior managers the previous week carried out a surprise inspection of the night shift in a paint priming shop. They discovered all the 14 men employed there, including a supervisor, asleep or dozing in sleeping bags, blankets and makeshift bunks.
When questioned the men said they had completed their work quota. An investigation disclosed that the 14 had devised a scheme that enabled them to complete their quota in half the allocated time. They had found that double the recommended number of body panels could be hung on the paint conveyor.
BL described this as potentially dangerous. However, the wife of one of the dismissed workers, Mrs Ray Pennell, of Chelmsley Wood, Birmingham, said the management knew of the practice and had asked men to double-load the conveyors if production fell behind.
Harsh treatment from management
Joseph Harris, Convenor of the Transport and General Workers Union, at Rover, Solihull, said: ‘These workers have been treated harshly because of all the publicity.’ The disciplinary hearings ended on 14 November 14 1979 when BL dismissed the Superintendent in charge of the day and night shifts in that area of the Land Rover plant at Solihull.
Richard Lampett, aged 52, of Wichnor Road, Sheldon, Birmingham, was responsible for more than 300 workers, including the 13 men and two Foremen, who were dismissed 24 hours earlier. Mr Lampett, who joined Rover 22 years earlier as a Tool Setter, said: ‘I believe I have been treated very harshly. The case against me was brought following publicity and not on the facts.’
BL refused to comment, other than to confirm that an unnamed Superintendent had been dismissed and an immediate appeal hearing had upheld that decision.
Another plant goes down
Then, on 16 November 1979, another BL plant was in the news for similar reasons. A survey by a Superintendent at Oxford Exhausts, a factory making most of BL’s exhaust systems and petrol tanks, found employees, ‘dozing in various parts of the factory.’
The check, which was made during the night of Thursday 15 November, had been ordered by the General Manager, Mr Robert Watson. A company statement on the Superintendent’s discovery, said they had all completed their work quota. The incident would be reported to the management and judged on the circumstances.
The statement added that the company regarded the investigation as private. Similar incidents had occurred before and appropriate action had been taken. No mention was made of any disciplinary action against the workers. All this was occurring at the same time as the crisis confronting BL over its decision to fire Longbridge Convener Derek Robinson.
The sleeping on the night shift story went quiet until the New Year of 1980.
More sackings in order
Beginning on 8 January 1980, the Foreman fired in November, now named as Mr Robert Yates, of Coplow Close, Balsall Common, Warwickshire, began an unfair dismissal claim against Land Rover. The tribunal at Birmingham heard that the events took place in June 1979, not November as previously assumed, after a six-month investigation into alleged clock-card malpractices at the Solihull plant. Security officers kept watch from behind an extractor fan in a paint shop, from where they could see a clocking point.
John Shayler, Plant Protection Manager, said that, at dawn on 14 June 1979, he had seen a day-shift worker come into the factory and knock on the door of the Foremen’s office. A little later, through a window, he saw two men, naked from the waist up. Five minutes afterwards Mr Yates came out. He was dressed.
Mr Alan Walters, a Supervisor, said he had seen another man come from the office carrying a Land Rover seat capable of being used as a bed. Only three men, none of them Mr Yates, had gone to the clocking point before 6.45 am, the end of the shift. Two of them had clocked 24 or 25 cards.
Mr John Share, Personnel Manager, said the company was satisfied that Mr Yates had allowed men to sleep on a night shift and had allowed clocking offences in which he had taken part. Mr Share also said there was nothing wrong with workers having a ‘snooze’ provided it was in a chair. But taking a bed to work was a ‘deliberate act of anticipation.’
Men never had enough work to do…
In his defence, Mr Yates claimed that British Leyland’s system of giving a measured quota of work for a shift resulted in his men never having enough work to do. The following day Robert Yates lost his appeal for unfair dismissal.
Mr Richard Smith, Chairman of the Industrial Tribunal, said he had told, ‘one cock and bull story after another’, to explain away events taking place at dawn on 14 June 1979 at the Rover works, Solihull. Giving the Tribunal’s decision, Mr Smith said it should be made clear that Mr Yates dismissal predated others, which came after publicity given to workers found sleeping on a night shift.
On 10 January 1980 night-shift workers were given a wake-up warning by British Leyland management. A spokesman said that they would consider taking action against anyone found dozing at work. The spokesman at the Land Rover plant in Solihull: ‘We do not condone sleeping or dozing in working hours.’
BL’s market share declines to 15 per cent
This whole affair, combined with the confrontation over the sacking of Derek Robinson, possibly contributed in BL’s UK market share declining further to 15 per cent in January 1980. A further confrontation with the Transport and General Workers Union over BL’s imposition of new working practices in April saw market share slump further to 13 per cent in June 1980.
These were dark times indeed.
The quota system mentioned seems to have been a relic of the deal to end piecework in the early 1970s. A quote from Austin Rover Managing Director Harold Musgrove (right) from 1984 underlines that. “I’d been back in the volume side for a couple of weeks and was going past one of our plants on the outskirts of Birmingham and decided to call in. I hadn’t been there for many years. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon.
90 per cent of workers had gone home
“I called into the Plant Director’s office and said that I’d like to look around to see what was happening. When we walked the shop floor, I think 90 per cent of the employees had actually gone home. When I asked, ‘What happened?’ I was told ‘Well, they’ve finished their stint.’ In fact, some had finished by one o’clock. I pointed out that we paid them until 4.30pm.
‘How do you explain it?’
The response was: ‘They’ve been doing it for years.’
“We’d been establishing targets, establishing line rates and achieving 60 per cent of the target, which meant that the track stopped for 40 per cent of the day. That was not the responsibility of the employees, that was not the responsibility of the workforce. That had to be the responsibility of management.”
Musgrove may well have been referring to the Drews Lane plant in Birmingham.
Princess production halted
By the end of October 1978 output of the ADO71 Princess range at the Austin Morris car assembly plant at Cowley was halted by a dispute at Drews Lane. Six hundred workers had been laid off indefinitely because of a shortage of suspension units caused by a work to rule by 150 workers at the transmission plant at Drews Lane.
They had begun a policy of non-cooperation following the management’s moves to stop workers leaving before the shift was completed. The men said that, when they had done their work, they should be allowed to go home.
The men at Drews Lane had worked to rule for several weeks in protest at management attempts to stop them leaving early. The men said that, under BL’s Measured Day Work system of payment, they were entitled to leave as soon as they had completed their output target for the day. Belated attempts to set up acceptable new output targets had been resisted by the Shop Stewards.
Some thorny industrial issues
The long-standing custom and practice of allowing men to go home early once they had completed their quota of work was a thorny industrial relations issue. From the Shop Stewards’ point of view BL management had entered into an agreement with them to end piecework and, a few years later, they were trying to renege on the deal.
Ray Horrocks (right), the head of BL Cars, told Chairman Michael Edwardes: ‘We talk of regaining management control and applying proper discipline. But at Drews Lane we still have an extraordinary situation.
‘There is a long-standing tradition known as stint and finish. This means employees can complete their daily stint, or work quota, and then go home at any time from 3.00pm onwards, but still be paid to the end of the shift.
‘Over the years they have applied pressure to weaken work standards so that, against the already slack standards then applying, they are able to claim they have done their days work and management is powerless to give them more work to complete the shift.’
Mass lay-offs ensued
The Drews Lane dispute became an all out strike on 3 November 1978, and 26,000 BL workers were laid off as a result, before it was resolved on 17 November. The Stokes-era management had paid a high price to rid themselves of piecework but, in the climate of early 1970s Britain, the Shop Stewards had the upper hand, and British Leyland’s finances were too weak to withstand a major dispute, so to berate management is perhaps a bit unfair.
So that was the sleeping on the night-shift affair.
But what became of those involved?
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Twelve : 1974 continued - 27 September 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eleven : 1974 - 23 August 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021