Archive : How participation went sour at Longbridge

How participation went sour at Longbridge

As BL’s labour problems bring the troubled motor group once again to the edge of a financial precipice, NICK BOULTER – a civil servant who spent 15 months on the finishing lines of the ‘Mini’ – gives a shop floor view of Participation.

In early 1976 serious planning started at Longbridge on a strategy to build a new mass produced car. Codenamed the LC8 the ‘Super-Mini’, this car will be launched in October 1980 and bears the hopes of the volume side of BL Cars for the 1980s. It will be built entirely at Longbridge. Longbridge has 20,000 manual employees. Parts of it look more like an industrial museum than a modern car factory. Both unions and management were aware that the factory was at a crossroads. The management wanted to introduce the most modern equipment into the factory for building the new car, and they were eager that the unions not only accept this, but also more efficient working practices. The seven-man Works Committee, elected from the 800-strong Joint Shop Stewards Committee, was acutely aware that the inefficient state of plant posed a longterm threat to their members jobs and wages. Instead of rejecting the management’s proposals, the Works Committee decided that it would be more intelligent to see how the changes could be harnessed to improve job satisfaction, job security, and lead to better working conditions and higher pay. These preliminary discussions coincided with the launching in 1976 of the three-tier Participation scheme (at factory, division and company levels) as part of the Government’s rescue policy.

The Ryder Report made it clear that Participation would not mean joint regulation, but it was still accepted by stewards and at mass meetings in a majority of plants. Participation was seen as an opportunity for workers themselves to make a contribution to the welfare and development of the company – then in a very bad state. Derek Robinson, the union convener at Longbridge, and a member of the Communist Party, claimed… ‘if we make Leyland successful, it will be a political victory. It will prove that ordinary working people have got the intelligence and determination to run industry.”

The Participation Committee set up a sub-committee to examine the type of new equipment and working practices necessary for the successful production of the LC8. Jack Adams, chairman of the Longbridge JSSC and secretary of the BL Cars Combine, explained what happened: ‘The company got very high levels of management to make representations (really on the basis of recommendations) to that committee. They suggested various options – automated, conventional and semi-automated systems. It was generally thought that the semi-automated system was better than the fully automated, and the union members agreed that there was enough protection for our members.’

This would not only secure the future of the industry – because that was a very important consideration– but it would also secure good working conditions for the union members in the plant.

‘Extensive detail was revealed. I think that in my experience that never before in our movement has so much information been revealed–at least at the early stage. Almost everything that we requested was made available. Obviously, the company was very keen to get our cooperation. I think that it is fair to say that it is only in cases where trade unions have been faced up with confrontations or plant closures that they have indicated that they are willing to talk about changes this big. And we did it willingly and voluntarily, convinced that we were acting in the best interests of the company and our members.’

The key new equipment to be introduced are automatic Unimate multi-welding machines. These are capable of producing body-shells at incredible speeds to very accurate dimensions. When installed, they will make the Longbridge body-shop as modern as any in Europe and possibly in the world. At this stage of production, the direct labour input will become minimal–only a handful of maintenance men and inspectors will be left. Not surprisingly then is it a trade union fear that this type of technology will not only turn out cars at a fast rate, bul also many workers will also be turned out of jobs very quickly–albeit very unpleasant jobs. The benefit of the semi-automated system was that it combined the efficiency of this advanced technology with the more conventional finishing lines. At the level of output being considered – 5,000 to 6,000 cars a week – there would be no job losses. Indeed, employment might expand. For the unions this meant a sensible application of technology, with the dirtiest and most unpleasant jobs being done by machines, enabling a general improvement in working conditions.

For the company, the semi-automated system gave the advantage of the highly efficient automatic welding machines, and built-in buffer zones as a protection against body losses. The loss of jobs is only one threat from the introduction of this type of technology. Dilution of skill and increases in monotony are others. The Works Committee did not want to see the current three minute job cycles common in the factory replaced by 20 second job cycles, or even by a combination of 20 second cycles – as had happened in some factories. Because of the inevitable effects of boredom on quality and absenteeism, the company was also very interested in looking for alternative working practices. This lay in job enlargement and job enrichment.

The team-working concept gave the best answer. This would enable a production worker to do several categories of work, instead of only one at the present. Instead of being a trackfeeder, or a track worker on a short cycle or a rectifier, or an inspector, it would be possible for a man – with training – to do all these jobs within a larger gang. This would give job enrichment and enlargement. These changes in working practices would occur throughout the whole production chain, from the body shop, through the paint shops, and on to the final trim lines, where massive new tracks are under construction.

Across the factory, the new technology will lead to efficiency increases of about 25 per cent. But the benefits to the company from team-working will be just as great. With greater mobility between skilled men, the company will be able to maximise a very valuable scarce resource. Team-working will require less sick relief workers and less slipmen providing considerable manpower savings. As the mistakes made by one member of the larger gangs will be put right on the spot by another member, there will be less need for the tracks to slop for rectification.

The company is uncertain about the exact productivity effects of teamworking, but it is agreed that they are substantial and increases will be in the order or 25-30 per cent. The outcome selected, of team working adapted to a mixture of automated and conventional technology was coincidentally the one most preferred by unions and management. These detailed discussions in the Participation sub-committee lasted nearly two years, up to the early summer of last year, 1978.

With agreement in principle and the arrival of Michael Edwardes, the Works Committee at meetings with senior BL management repressed their willingness to get the proposed changes into operation as quickly as possible – but only on a negotiated basis. And the crucial demand was for higher wages. The Works Committee had no intention that Longbridge, which would become the most efficient car factory in Britain, would remain the lowest paid.

Operating within the company’s parity guide lines, they argued that the top paid Longbridge worker should move to the level of the top paid worker in BL (a sheet metal worker at Canley) giving wage increases of about £10 a week, with all lower grades receiving comparable pro rata increases. The company argued that it was impossible for them to meet such increases as they would have companywide repercussions, with every sectional interest –such as the toolroom at S.U. Carburettors – likely to demand parity with Longbridge..lack Adams considers these arguments to be red herrings, and that from the start the company was placing obstacles in the path of effective negotiators, preparing to implement the chances over the heads of the shop stewards. He ascribes this to a general change in management style away from participation to management by command following the appointment of Michael Edwardes.

The crucial date that had been haunting the negotiations since last summer was March 12 – now carried forward due to delays to early or mid April – the date for a switchover of production from some existing’Mini’finishing lines to the new ones on which the LCS/Super Mini will eventually be built. The Works Committee argued that it would have been possible for some areas to have moved over to the new working methods from the middle of last year– which is also what the company originally wanted –so generating additional productivity, and ironing out some of the problems before the new lines were opened.

The company, however, adopted a different strategy. By March 12 (and now April) they hoped that the first stages of parity would have been triggered and the job evaluation exercises completed. By implementing the changes in working practices then, the company hoped that workers would move on to the new tracks and into new job gradings – many being higher than at present. This would prevent having to negotiate and pay the higher wages, and avoid any repercussions in the rest of the company. With workers going into higher grades and getting the extra parity payments as well, the company hoped to undercut shopfloor action for the new demand the Works Committee put forward recently – for ex-gratia payments for the workers accepting the changes which would give the company large productivity increases. It is around the principle of ex-gratia payments that the Works Committee is basing its negotiations now that the imminent implementation of parity has ruled out the possibility of raising Longbridge’s wages above the rest in BL. Ex-gratia payments for adopting changes in working practices have been made in the past – for example during the transition from piece work to measured day work. The unions want to establish the principle of these payments so that any other BL factory which agrees to similar changes in the future will automatically be awarded them.

At a meeting on March 1, the Works Committee made it clear that it wanted to see the new tracks opened on time – but unless negotiations had been satisfactorily reached over the levels of remuneration for accepting the changed working practices, the existing working practices would have to operate. The management replied that they could not countenance opening the new lines on existing practices, and that if agreement was not reached they would then unilaterally issue’the necessary instructions to individuals in order to meet the timing programme.”

Jack Adams thinks this reply to be…’a load of hypocritical nonsense.’

He adds :’Without any doubt, they have drawn up the battle lines and intend to face us up with confrontation. If they had beprt at all genuine, they would have accepted our point of view with the full knowledge that they still had several weeks to negotiate in. They have chosen not to do that. No doubt they will tell the press that we are jeopardising the whole future of the West Midlands as an industrial base. This is in complete contradiction to the very responsible manner in which the trade unions have tackled the whole question since 1976. They have made it clear that if we go in, it will be on their terms, their conditions, and their wages. Now if that’s their answer then we will face them up with the worst kind of confrontation we can organise. And it’s tragic but it looks inevitable. This management of late have done their utmost to face the trade unions up with management’s unilateral decisions with no choices being available to the trade unions.’

Whether developments lead to confrontation or whether the unions succeed in getting the principle of ex-gratia payments for accepting changes in working, practices established remains to be seen. What is certain is that shop stewards at Longbridge – as throughout the whole of BL Cars – no longer see Participation as a worthwhile exercise. Their attitude was summed up by Jack Adams: ‘We are convinced that they have used Participation as a management tool.”

The shop stewards consider the attitude of management today to be a breach of the confidence they placed in the company when the changes were being discussed. This change in management style will certainly make it more difficult for changes in working practice to be negotiated in future.

Keith Adams
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