Clifford Webb on the new fight with the unions
British Leyland’s apparent success in forcing through a new pay system in a key section of its Austin Morris Cowley car plant will be tested when the company tries to increase production of its all important new model at present code named the ADO28 .
The car which carries all the volume car division’s hopes of converting a £15m. loss into profit this year is at present being produced in small numbers. Oniv 560 men are employed on final assembly and a further 160 in producing the body. At least double this number will be required if the company is to reach its target capacity of 4,000 a week. A second assembly line is ready and will have to be activated shortly. Failure to provide a sufficient number of new cars to enable dealers to cash in on expensive launching campaigns has been one of British Leyland’s persistent shortcomings.
With so much resting on the ADO28, George Turnbull, managing director of Austin Morris, is determined to give the model the best possible start in life. But bitter union opposition to the introduction of measured day work in place of traditional piece work systems will undoubtedly lead to a showdown when the company tries to increase production of the new car. Although the men on the final assembly line in the South Works at Cowley are working normally under the new system, they will soon be starved of bodies by their colleagues across the road in the old Pressed Steel Fisher plant, who are not. They rejected the offer and are only working at a reduced tempo for an interim wage of 12s. 3d. an hour compared with the assembly workers£1 an hour.
Pressed Steel Fisher, Cowley is a one union shop, the Transport and General Workers, whose officials are solidly behind the retention of piece work. Any attempt to force the 160 ADO28 body men to step up their output, or to move men from other work to reinforce them, could lead to a mass walk out. The situation is not so clear cut in the assembly plants (the old Morris works) because three unions are operating there, the T.G.W.U., the Amalgamated Engineering Workers, and the National Union of Vehicle Builders. Voting was confused and union spokesmen were heckled at the mass meeting on Thursday and the assembly workers are far from unanimous in their reported opposition to the extension of measured day work throughout the plant.
But for a car worker to accept new terms for a job he is already doing demands a different brand of courage from allowing himself to be moved from existing piece work in North Works to measured day work on the new car in South Works. And this will be the choice facing the men shortly when Austin Morris begins to step up production of the new car. All these problems are well known to management.
One executive told me: “We have produced so many permutations of possible reaction to the introduction of measured day work that we could paper this office and next door with all the memos flying about on the subject. But the fact is that whatever the men’s reaction. we have no alternative. We must produce the A.D.O. 28 by the most up to date systems of working or we shall just be giVing birth to another albatross to hang around our necks.”
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the new car to British Leyland as a whole. With a nominal capacity of a million cars a year Austin Morris is the backbone of the group. But not onlv has it never made anything like a million cars a year but its existing models are regarded in the industry as over engineered and offering too small a profit margin to permit economic working in today’s up and down conditions.
The ADO28 is the first Austin Morris car to be developed right from the drawing board since British Leyland was formed nearly three years ago. Lord Stokes, British Leyland’s normally optimistic chairman, has made no secret of his shock when he discovered after the merger that the Maxi was the only new car on the stocks at B.M.C. And even this model was considered by both marketing and engineering to be a near-unsalable package in its existing form. In addition, many of the engineering complications of the existing B.M.C. models had been retained.
A hasty facelift was rushed through to make the Maxi more presentable and last summer, mainly as a result of criticism from motoring journalists, much needed improvements were made on the mechanical side.
To provide the group with a British Leyland “Cortina “-which among other things would enable it to capture a share of the big market for fleet and hire cars, every possible designer, engineer and production expert who could be spared was put to work on the development of a new car. The brief was made easier bv the clearly identified musts for such a car which Ford had spotlighted with the Cortina by selling over 2m. in eight years. Such a car will lend itself to variants such as estate cars and British Leyland is badly in need of a popular priced estate car. But it was little use developing such a model and trying to produce it by the existing B.M.C. methods. In addition to the well known problems of piecework, the production of bodies in one factory. engines in another 60 miles away, and final assembly lines in yet another factory imposed intolerable financial and production burdens. Austin Morris, Cowley, the heart of the old Nuffield empire was the obvious choice.
Just across the road was the group’s Pressed Steel Fisher body plant. By linking the two with a huge overhead conveyor they were converted into one production unit. Morris has two plants on the same side of the Oxford bypass known as North and South Works. South Works was chosen to assemble the new car. Some £45m. has been spent jointly on the development of the car and the modernization of South Works. With that sort of investment at a time when profits have slumped to a nominal £4m.
British Leyland is in no position to duck a stand-up fight with the unions over the replacement of piecework. Time is running out too fast for kid glove methods and Thursday’s confrontation with the unions has shown that at last the British group is making its stand.