Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, delivers a fantastic insight into BL’s industrial relations, and how they changed over the years… Say hello to what became known as the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee, and how it developed between 1960 and 1975.
The British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) was a thorn in the side of British Leyland management for many a year, but it really came to prominence during the Michael Edwardes era with a series of confrontations that saw it labelled as a militant body obstructing necessary change by management, politicians and the media.
Because many of its leading lights were openly members of the Communist Party of Great Britain amid Cold War tensions, there was paranoia about Reds sabotaging British Leyland, all of which proved to be baseless – to demonise its members as being misguided or plain wrong is just too simplistic. Its very existence and function were the result of the haphazard mergers of differing companies with different wage structures and it was not always viewed as a negative force.
Piecework: The Union battle lines drawn
The BLTUC had origins in the British Motor Corporation Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee, which came into being in the mid-1960s when the veteran Communist Convener at Longbridge, Dick Etheridge, began to call meetings of Conveners from other plants. The intention was to swap details of piecework rates, wage drift and possible moves to change the use of factories. It met not more than half-a-dozen times a year and preferred to operate quietly.
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 1940, having been rejected by the armed forces on health grounds. A few years before he had defected from the Labour Party to the Communist Party, largely because of the Spanish Civil War.
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 trade unionists with the opportunity to organise 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), the Chief Executive of the Austin Motor Company.
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 a disastrous National Union of Vehicle Builders strike, Leonard Lord could have sacked Dick 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 due to a credit squeeze. The Shop Stewards organized the strike very effectively and, when work resumed, the Longbridge plant had become a virtual closed shop.
Despite their differences, the BMC Chairman Sir Leonard Lord (above) had no qualms about accepting Etheridge’s son, also called Richard, as an Austin apprentice in 1957 and later sponsored a degree course at Birmingham College of Advanced Technology.
Within the Amalgamated Engineering Workers Union (AEWU), Dick 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.
However, 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, Dick Etheridge was elected lay President of the AEUW’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 AEUW was toppled by a ‘broad left’ Alliance in which the Communists took part.
Although he was a Communist, Dick Etheridge was not seen as a disruptive force by the 1960s, far from it. In an era of piecework, disputes were frequent and walkouts by small groups of workers often resulted in mass layoffs and loss of earnings by thousands of others. Dick Etheridge acted as a facilitator and mediator at Longbridge between management and strikers on order to get the mass of employees back to work and earning money again. In this he earned the respect of senior management.
Dick Etheridge said: ‘The piecework system was implemented in different ways depending on the company but each had underlying flaws and, because human ingenuity is such, wage systems have always been open to abuse by the workforce, some of it blatantly fraudulent, of which I strongly disapprove.’
One of the problems was that groups of workers would enter into a dispute, claiming parity with others who did a similar job. Once this was resolved the latter group would also enter into dispute in order to maintain their differential in earnings over the first group.
Longbridge was built on piecework. Austin saw workers as animals with ‘Pavlovian’ instincts responding to the money incentive only. The method produced good levels of productivity, but the cost lay in a loss of control by management over wage and hence unit costs.
Piecework on the track was tough, a jungle, and required that a man was physically fit in order to cope. The idea of the men was basically to get the maximum output with the least number of men and so bid up the rates. If in a gang of six men, four reckoned they could handle the job, then two were ”squeezed’ out. Often the casualties were older workers. It was a dog-eat-dog environment.
One Longbridge worker said: ‘When the tracks stopped, you were shouting at them (the foremen) to get it going because you were losing money. Under piecework, it was the men who really ran the track.’
In late 1966, Dick Etheridge led the BMC Shop Stewards in their campaign against the mass redundancies proposed by BMC because of another credit squeeze. It was Etheridge who led the Shop Stewards protesting at the Labour Party conference that year.
The Shop Stewards met Prime Minister Harold Wilson after 600 BMC workers had besieged Mr Wilson’s hotel, carrying posters and shouting anti-Government slogans. Harold Wilson went out to face them and the Shop Stewards, led by Dick Etheridge, asked if a delegation of 12 men could meet the premier.
Wilson proposed three and they settled on six. When the Shop Stewards walked in, the Prime Minister counted 12 men. Harold Wilson was recorded as saying: ‘that’s one of your troubles at BMC, isn’t it? You always have 12 men where six would do.’
While the Prime Minister clearly thought BMC was over-manned and not selling enough abroad, the root of the problem was his Government’s inability to get a tariff free access for British cars in the Common Market and the credit squeeze they had inflicted on the UK motor industry.
Dick Etheridge was only doing his job in speaking to the Premier. In 1968, British Leyland came into being, and on 1 May the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) came into existence. The Committee or Combine, as it was sometimes known, would operate under a variety of similar sounding names over the years. The merger had resulted in new arrivals in the form of Rover, Leyland Vehicles, Triumph plus Jaguar, which had come on board in 1966. The newcomers had not had combines of their own and their inclusion gave Dick Etheridge a much more powerful bargaining machine.
‘That’s one of your troubles at BMC, isn’t it? You always have 12 men where six would do.’ – Harold Wilson
Joint Chairmen were elected: Dick Etheridge and Eddie McGarry from Leyland’s Standard-Triumph International plant at Canley, Coventry. The plan was that the new body would meet once every six months, but domestic problems would still be left to the existing organisations in the separate factories or groups of factories. One of its first moves was to call for an early meeting with BLMC’s Managing Director, Sir Donald Stokes, to discuss future plans.
Dick Etheridge said after the first meeting: ‘We do not want any change in the arrangement for the meeting with the BMC Shop Stewards, but we want Sir Donald to meet the Executive Committee of the new body to discuss his intentions with regard to reorganisation and rationalisation, which already seems to have started.’
The media noted that there were no full-time trade union officials at this meeting. ‘It has been said that this body will be opposed to the official line. That is not true. We want to work with the full-time officials and we have had letters of good wishes from a number of them,’ said Dick Etheridge.
The meeting unanimously passed a resolution pledging an early show of the organisation’s strength and insisted on some form of action ‘that will have more than a salutary effect on the employers.’
At the afternoon session the meeting unanimously passed a resolution calling for full consultation on any plans for the movement of work from one factory to another. Dick Etheridge said: ‘Unless there is consultation and mutual agreement, then there will be no movement of work. If a factory refuses to have work moved away the question will be referred to the official trade union movement upon whom we shall call to put the matter in dispute.
‘We realise that there must be considerable change. We do not oppose change for the sake of opposing it, but we shall fight redundancies. It seems everybody is scared of Sir Donald Stokes, including the management. We are not.’
They got their meeting with Sir Donald Stokes (above) on 9 May, when 34 Shop Stewards met him at Longbridge amid rumours of 30,000 redundancies. As expected, Dick Etheridge, the Convener at Longbridge, put the union’s case for the earliest possible consultation before redundancies were announced.
He stressed that the continuing uncertainty about their future employment was affecting morale throughout the group. A no-punches-pulled question-and-answer session that followed made it abundantly clear to Sir Donald Stokes that, small or big, redundancies in BLMC plants would be fought tooth and nail.
A week later the Shop Stewards met again. Eddie McGarry and Dick Etheridge issued this ultimatum to Sir Donald Stokes: ‘Meet us before our next committee meeting in three weeks’ time or take the consequences.’
And the consequences, according to Eddie McGarry, were, ‘as strong as possible.’
He also said: ‘You can place your own interpretation on our meaning. The men are in an ugly, apprehensive mood after all this talk about redundancies and, if necessary, we shall use whatever weapons are available to us. But like Sir Donald we are not going to tip our hand before the time comes to play it.’
‘We realised as soon as we took over that we needed a cutback of about 30,000.’ – Donald Stokes
By the end of the summer of 1968 there was no more talk of redundancies. In the 1980s Lord Stokes said: ‘We realised as soon as we took over that we needed a cutback of about 30,000, but it proved impossible. Just before we took over, GEC had taken over AEI and had a huge redundancy programme and, when we tried a similar programme, there was a tremendous resistance from the unions.’
Lord Stokes also said that the GEC takeover of AEI and the resulting redundancy programme had ‘created an absolute core of resistance among the trade unions to any job losses whatsoever and we just couldn’t face a strike because it would have resulted in an all out one. We had shareholders and we couldn’t take that strong a stand. You couldn’t go on with a public company resisting unions that were hell bent on confrontation in those days.’
BLMC Finance Director John Barber (below) later said: ‘Looking back, Donald Stokes was in many ways too kind a man to have taken over BMH. What it needed was a really ruthless rationalization – models, people, the lot. He tackled it the kind way, setting up working parties covering every aspect of the company. He tried to do it in a consensus way and, if you start off that way, you don’t get things achieved as rapidly as they are needed.’
The BLMC Shop Stewards had won their first victory.
About this time, Len Brindle, another Communist Party member, had become Convener at the Leyland factory in Lancashire and had an excellent power base. Leyland employees were poorly paid compared with the group’s car workers. By joining the combine Len Brindle knew he would gain access to detailed information on wages and the support of vastly experienced negotiators such as Dick Etheridge.
By May 1969, Len Brindle was pressing for a substantial pay rise for his members in Leyland. This erupted into a solid full-blown strike by 8500 workers on 19 May 1969. No one could remember the last time there had been a serious strike at Leyland. Five plants were strike bound, four at Leyland itself and one at nearby Chorley.
Talks had been going on for several weeks. The management was prepared to continue negotiations but shop floor representatives had accused the company of being unwilling to reach a reasonable settlement. They rejected both an offer from the management and the BLTUC-proposed timetable for its introduction. Attitudes had hardened. The strike was declared official. The dispute was finally resolved on 4 July 1969 when the strikers extracted from management what they had demanded in the first place.
The stoppage had cost Leyland £5.5m in lost production. Although costly, there was perhaps an inevitably about the dispute. It was inevitable that other BLMC plants would demand pay parity with the Midlands, something that was not foreseen by all the highly-paid analysts employed by both BLMC and the Government. One of the reasons why Leyland looked more efficient than BMC was that it paid the majority of its workforce lower wages. From the summer of 1969 that was no longer the case.
Measured Day Work: more troubles ahead
The next battleground was the introduction of Measured Day Work to replace piecework, which the BLTUC campaigned against. This had been mooted in the dying days of BMC, but the formation of British Leyland brought with it a new sense of urgency. Prolonged piecework negotiations had become the most effective power base for the Shop Stewards’ movement throughout British Leyland, but it made modifications in product difficult and effective management impossible.
BLMC Finance Director John Barber later commented: ‘We had the ludicrous situation, when we brought out the Mini Clubman in 1969 with its redesigned front, that the Shop Stewards wanted to renegotiate the piecework rates for the entire car. Any sensible person would have just negotiated on the new pieces of sheet metal and it really illustrates the inequity of the piecework system.’
By 1970, piecework strikes in BLMC were on an epidemic scale, and few if any were official. Lord Stokes was asked why labour relations were so bad.
‘We are in the middle of a social revolution. People are becoming better educated. They are thinking. They discuss and query. But there is no constructive thinking. It is easy to criticise, but few people are putting up satisfactory alternatives. The day when management imposed its will on the workers is gone. In future we will have management by consent—with participation and co-operation from everyone.
‘But people will have to accept discipline too – they will have to abide by the decisions in which they participated. This applies to workers, trade unions and management.’
The opening round to replace piecework was at the Cowley assembly plant which was being gutted to make way for the new Morris Marina (above). A British Leyland spokesman said: ‘Cowley is being re-equipped and expanded at a cost of many millions of pounds to increase capacity from 8000 cars a week to 10,000. It will then be producing about the same number as the group’s biggest car plant at Longbridge. At the same time, we are trying to simplify the present highly complicated pay structure for day workers by introducing a more flexible system of working.’
In August 1970, the BL Shop Stewards campaigned for guaranteed layoff pay for workers made idle by stoppages in outside component plants. The campaign began at Triumph where 7500 employees stayed away from work because 1300 were laid off because of a dispute at an outside supplier.
A spokesman said: ‘The men on the shop floor are absolutely fed up with management’s refusal to pay men laid off through no fault of their own. There are so many strikes at outside firms these days that we have forgotten what a full pay packet looks like. Make no mistake about it this issue is easily the most explosive British Leyland has seen for a long time.’
They eventually won their case and tried to extend the demand for layoff pay to include internal disputes, which resulted in a damaging strike at Triumph in December 1974.
‘We should be involved in the reorganisation to ensure that workers are not thrown on the scrapheap.’ – Dick Etheridge
In December 1970, with the demise of the Morris Minor on the horizon, Austin-Morris announced the closure of two plants, Quinton Road, Coventry and Adderley Park West, Birmingham and the loss of 5000 jobs. Predictably the BLMC Shop Stewards opposed the move. Dick Etheridge told 1000 of them in Birmingham that they recognised that the company should be profitable, but not at the workers’ expense.
‘We cannot accept temporary sackings to cover up management inefficiencies or for rationalisation to meet their competitors. We should be involved in the reorganisation to ensure that workers are not thrown on the scrapheap’, he said.
In January 1971, BLMC imposed piecework on the Cowley workforce after months fruitless talks. Austin-Morris Director George Turnbull (above) said in a contemporary interview: ‘We’ve made it very clear to everyone in the Cowley area that this new model cannot be made on piecework. There has been a lot of direct communication with the workpeople and I think and hope we have convinced them.
‘Even in plants with the best relations, it has usually taken a very long time to get piecework prices fixed and so it has taken months for production to reach levels it should have reached in weeks. We just can’t afford these interminable delays. If the market is there and the product is right, it has got to be made and sold. Otherwise your competitors take your business; and as I think has been very obvious lately, if you give your competitors half a chance they get in pretty smartly.’
The imposition did the trick, but the Cowley Shop Stewards extracted from BMLC a ‘Mutuality’ deal which gave them a much larger measure of control over the speed of production than the management would have liked.
These were frankly horrible times for British Leyland. The strikes over piecework seemed to be spinning out of control and it must have seemed that an industrial abyss was just around the corner, coming sooner rather than later. The Conservative Government of Edward Heath had introduced the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which inflamed shop floor opinion even more as it was seen as an attack on the working class. From being the centre of the largest empire the world had ever seen, Britain now seemed to be on the brink of social, economic and industrial disintegration.
In April 1971, BLMC persuaded 8000 indirect workers at Longbridge to accept Measured Day Work, but they were made to pay for it, awarding a 22 per cent pay rise to buy them off.
The changeover to Measured Day Work had met with success at Cowley, but Longbridge was holding out and was probably the most tightly organised stronghold of piecework in the country.
BLMC claimed that average pay at Cowley had risen from £25.02 a week to £46 a week and that man hours lost through strikes had fallen from 895,000 to 9000
Shop Stewards had refused a management request for them to pass on the results of the first eight months of working the new system at Cowley. BLMC claimed that average pay at Cowley had risen from £25.02 a week to £46 a week and that man hours lost through strikes had fallen from 895,000 to 9000.
In January 1972, BLMC opened negotiations to convert Triumph to Measured Day Work. In the previous two years Triumph had become a strike ridden basket case, which the management blamed on the retention of piecework. In May 1972, 220 Shop Stewards at Triumph’s Canley plant in Coventry rejected a proposed new pay and conditions structure, only hours after the management had announced it.
Eddie McGarry, Convener for the Transport and General Workers’ Union at Canley and Joint Chairman of the powerful BLTUC, said after the meeting: ‘We are all bitterly disappointed. After months of negotiation management has chosen to ignore our alternative proposals and is trying to force Measured Day Work down our neck in place of piecework.’
Instead, he claimed, some men would be receiving £4 a week less and would have to work faster. ‘This is the first time that anywhere in British Leyland men have been asked to take a drop in wages when they are changing over from piecework to Measured Day Work’. In a ballot the workforce also rejected the offer.
Jaguar fights apart?
On 24 June, the Jaguar workforce began a 10 week pay strike. But Jaguar, now without the retired Sir William Lyons, still cherished their independence from the rest of British Leyland and initially made no overtures about introducing Measured Day Work.
The situation was not helped that, by many accounts, Jaguar was not a particularly pleasant place to work for ordinary shop floor workers. Sir William Lyons had looked on trade unions as an impedance to production, and his parsimonious attitude to his factories resulted in the retention of outdated equipment. The employees’ amenities were probably not much better. The dispute seemed to be a culmination of many grievances that had built up over the years.
Eddie McGarry, the Joint Chairman of the BLTUC, said after a meeting: ‘The Jaguar strikers have our full sympathy and support. They are getting about £41 a week and are asking for another £5 a week. That is not inconsistent with what is being paid elsewhere.’
Jaguar XJ production was severely affected by strikes
By mid-August Jaguar, now headed by Lofty England, had offered the strikers a flat rate payment system, which was rejected. Clearly if Jaguar wanted British Leyland to expand production of the best-selling XJ saloon (above), then it would have to play ball and agree to implement measured day work. By the ninth week of the strike the Jaguar Shop Stewards had agreed to a new payment structure, but the workforce held out, allegedly because Sir William Lyons had made his views known in the press.
Finally, the dispute was settled on 5 September 1972 after 10 weeks and four days. BLMC Finance Director John Barber later said that the dispute was worthwhile because it eliminated piecework in Jaguar. Until September 1972 Jaguar had been plagued with piecework disputes that severely restricted production, both before it became part of British Motor Holdings and after. Jaguar historians have often claimed that selling out to BMC to form British Motor Holdings and then, in turn, becoming part of British Leyland was bad news for the company, a near fatal blow, that British Leyland was a cancer that infected Jaguar to its detriment.
Possibly what forms part of this notion is that Jaguar Shop Stewards became privy to what piecework rates were earned in other parts of British Leyland via the BLTUC. However, after the 1972 pay strike, the introduction of Measured Day Work seems to have resulted in a marked decline in the number of disputes occurring within Jaguar enabling them to ramp up production of the XJ saloon, then considered to be the world’s best car regardless of price. Unfortunately, by the time Measured Day Work had been fully implemented in 1974, the Energy Crisis had resulted in demand for Jaguars slumping and the company had a lot of unsold cars left over which resulted in production cutbacks.
Dick Etheridge retires…
In August 1972, BLMC finally achieved a breakthrough at Longbridge when 300 Shop Stewards agreed to talk about changing the wages structure for 8000 manual workers. By January 1973, Triumph in Coventry was the last remaining stronghold of piecework in the British Leyland empire and even that eventually succumbed, but the Shop Stewards made the company pay a premium to its workforce in order to dispose of piecework.
The industrial relations situation continued to be grim within British Leyland, but nowhere near as bad as the dying days of piecework when stoppages seemed to occur on a daily basis.
In December 1974, Dick Etheridge retired when he reached the age of 65. Remarkably enough for a man who had been described as the most militant Shop Steward in the car industry, his bosses would mourn his departure as much as his workmates. For the truth was that for several years Etheridge had played a highly responsible role. Such was his standing with the volatile labour force employed at Longbridge that his word was law. But more and more he had come to realise that strikes were not always in the interests of the men he affectionately referred to as ‘my lads’.
By 1974, he was the only full-time Shop Steward at Longbridge, he had the permanent use of an office and telephone inside the factory and the Industrial Relations Department provided secretarial services when required. He was now on first name terms with British Leyland Chairman Lord Stokes and was seen as a force for calm on the industrial relations scene.
‘Circumstances change and anybody who does not change along with them is no bloody good to himself or the people he represents. In the old days it was open war between them and us. I am not saying it is all love and kisses today but at least there is a lot more mutual respect, ‘ he said.
When Dick Etheridge retired Lord Stokes gave him a plush dinner party at Longbridge and, in turn, was presented with one of Mrs Etheridge’s famous home-made Christmas puddings. Such was his reputation as a dispute solver.
Dick Etheridge’s retirement coincided with the financial collapse of British Leyland and the Labour Government stepping in to rescue the company. The Government asked Sir Don Ryder to report on what was to be done to turn British Leyland around. Eddie McGarry, the Canley Convenor and Joint Chairman of the BLTUC, said that if the public was going to have a financial stake in British Leyland there had not only be public accountability, but ‘practical trade union representation on the board. We will insist on direct representation.
‘Otherwise you are not changing anything. British Leyland’s difficulties over strikes pale into insignificance besides the business arrangements for running the concern.’
He said that with such union representation many disputes would not happen. He was delighted with the move towards state participation. ‘It is in line with our policy and with Labour Party policies for saving and creating jobs’, he said.
In January 1975, BLMC proposed a national assembly of 200 Shop Stewards who would meet the management twice a year, and consultative committees. BLTUC Joint Chairman Eddie McGarry said: ‘We are looking for something better than this. We want seats on the board.’
Dick Etheridge was succeeded by Derek Robinson as Longbridge Convenor and Joint Chairman of the BLTUC. Derek Robinson was born in 1927 and joined the Austin Motor Company at Longbridge in 1941 as an apprentice toolmaker. Ten years later he joined the Communist Party. By then he was married to his first wife, Betty, whom he had met at a local Conservative Club dance.
Dick Etheridge became his friend and mentor and remembered him as a ‘questioning young devil.’
‘I just sent him away with a book list of titles including Das Kapital and Socialism, Scientific and Utopian by Engels. I reckoned he would never get through them, but before long he was back asking for more.’