Opinion : Why unrest plagued the Maestro’s launch

In the run-up to the launch of the Austin Maestro, there were troubles brewing at the Cowley plant which would sour events.

Chris Cowin takes a close look at the infamous ‘Washing-up Dispute’.

Maestro strikes: Some things never change

Austin Maestro production at Cowley

Austin Rover’s Cowley plant was buzzing in early 1983, building up stocks of the new Austin and MG Maestro – in preparation for the public launch on 1 March 1983. The press launch, and dealer/fleet events, had already taken place in Spain and production was building up towards 2000 Maestros per week at Cowley.

Initially, there would be seven Maestros. The range would look like this: 1.3, 1.3L, 1.6L, 1.3HLE, 1.6HLS, 1.6 Vanden Plas and MG 1600. The Maestro 1.6 Automatic arrived a few months later.

The ‘Miracle Maestro’ got off to a very strong start with 8233 UK registrations in March 1983, which beat the existing (rather specific) record for the highest number of registrations by a British-badged car in its first month on sale (7107 Fiestas in February 1977).

Some 49,000 were sold in the first six months giving a 5% market share and placing Maestro at number six in the market, just behind the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2, which had a bigger range, with more body-styles and a wider range of engines.

High expectations

When the forthcoming Austin Montego added all these things to Maestro, it was expected Cowley would soon be filling its capacity to build 5000 LM10/11 models weekly.

A great deal hung on the Maestro and subsequent models in the all-important LM range, developed at a cost of £210m of which £147m covered the new robotised body facility at Cowley.

This was intended as the ‘second leg’ (after Metro) that would put BL’s volume car division back on its feet, and funding it had required much sacrifice elsewhere. However, despite extravagant advertising claiming ‘A miracle is born’, and ‘Born to perform miracles,’ the welcome given Maestro was rather lukewarm compared to that accorded Austin Metro two years earlier.

It sold well in a booming market during 1983, despite a troubling industrial dispute at Cowley which disrupted production for a month (details below), but forecasts that 120,000 Maestros would be built annually were soon scaled back. Just over 100,000 Maestros were produced in 1983 after which output declined…

Sales start to slow

The Brits were cool and continental Europeans didn’t fall for the Maestro – to anything like the extent they would fall for the later Honda-influenced Rover 200 (both the 1984 and especially the 1989 Rover R8 models). Austin Rover France for example found the Rover 200 saloon (mostly the Honda-engined 213) was soon selling at double the level of the hatchback Maestro in France – rather confounding expectations.

But below is an extract from my book ‘Betting on a Miracle‘ focusing on the infamous ‘Washing-up Dispute,’ which halted Maestro production for a long period during 1983:

‘Austin Rover had not completely turned the corner regarding industrial relations in 1983, as the damaging dispute which disrupted production of the brand-new Maestro at Cowley made clear in the spring.

‘Cowley downed tools on 28 March 1983, four weeks after the Maestro was introduced to the public, and stayed out for a month. This dispute, known as the “Washing-up Dispute” was provoked by attempts to lift output by eliminating the three minutes of “washing-up” (or cleaning) time which still applied at Cowley (having been eliminated elsewhere) and which led to production of each shift ending early, cutting weekly production time by 30 minutes – three minutes multiplied by 10 shifts.

The technicalities

‘This was against a background where the plant had recently shifted from a 40-hour week to a 39-hour week, something agreed nationally by the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF), putting this ‘washing-up’ time under the spotlight.

‘Cowley then built the Triumph Acclaim, Austin Ambassador, and Rover SD1 (all of which were disrupted), but its star product was now the brand-new Maestro, and management hoped to bring in the change by underlining how increased production would lead to higher earnings.

‘A hike in Maestro output from 2200 to 2750 a week was justified to meet demand. But amid a climate of tension in the plant and grievances over the supposed, “autocratic methods” of management, and claims of “brutality and slavery” from disgruntled employees, a four-week strike ensued, costing 20,000 cars with a showroom value of approx. £100m.

Thousands lost in production

‘This involved 5000 assembly workers and, at one point, saw public discussion (probably bluffing) of shifting Maestro production to either Longbridge or Solihull (where the old SD1 plant then stood empty) – while casting a cloud over the new XX (Rover 800) project with Honda announced on 6 April (which projected Cowley production for that model), as well as the partnership with Honda in general.

‘For a while this strike looked like another tragic case of ‘industrial suicide’ as it was described by Terence Beckett, head of the CBI, with the phrase “lemmings going over a cliff,” also being used in sections of the press.

A potential solution centred on giving Cowley ‘Audited Plant status’ (APS) which made the calculation of productivity bonuses simpler, but on 23 April after four weeks, a mass meeting voted to continue the dispute which had been made official by the TGWU, although (TGWU chief) Moss Evans was working hard with (Austin Rover chief) Harold Musgrove to try and end it.

A fit of madness?

‘Industry Secretary Norman Tebbit attacked “a fit of madness'”which he called “immensely sad” and there were hints the Government would halt further funding of the company (which had just posted a substantial trading loss of £126m for 1982).

‘Finally, on 26 April, workers voted five-to-one to go back, having suffered considerable loss of earnings (averaging £400 per head). Union figures claimed it was all worth it, with David Buckle, TGWU Oxford District Secretary saying, 2I have no doubt the strike was worthwhile because this company is now under the public microscope” (as if it hadn’t been before).

‘On 30 April, overtime started, addressing the backlog of orders for the Maestro, but the issue rumbled on (generating plenty of bad headlines and repelling potential car buyers). In May, another mass meeting voted to reject an improved offer while separately, a joint Union/management enquiry supported many of the 147 complaints of swearing or abuse of workers by managers.

‘There were definitely two sides to the poor industrial relations climate at Cowley, both of which had lessons to learn.

More action

‘Stewards voted 39-to-36 to strike again if the company imposed “bell to bell” working as they were threatening, and the issue was not resolved until July 4th when workers finally voted to accept a full 39-hour week allied to productivity bonuses.

‘David Buckle talked of “blackmail and intimidation” by management, but Cowley was clearly also suffering from what some called the “infiltration” of militants, an issue highlighted in August when one such worker, Stephanie Grant, with links to the Socialist League, had her appeal for unfair dismissal rejected after it was found she had made false declarations on the job application submitted when recruited to help build the Maestro.

‘She was one of the infamous ‘Cowley 13’ of supposedly Trotskyist militants who were expelled from the plant during 1983. There were rumours of sabotage in October when an iron bar inserted into the assembly line halted Maestro output, but nonetheless by the end of the year Cowley was recruiting once more, with 400 extra workers required to help build the Montego scheduled for launch in early 1984.@

Looking back today

The ‘Washing-up Dispute’ of 1983 was doubly tragic as it came at a time when, overall, British Leyland (or Austin Rover) had seen a dramatic reduction in disputes since the dark days of the 1970s.

But the staging of a major dispute just after the launch of an (apparently) hot new car, to maximize union ‘leverage’ as many saw it, looked like a return to the bad old days. Something very similar occurred just after the Austin Allegro was introduced at Longbridge ten years before, a parallel that was quickly seized on by the company’s many doubters.

With a General Election in the offing, the right-wing press didn’t pull their punches in penning articles that slotted the Austin Maestro into the same pigeonhole as industrial militancy and the hapless Labour Party of Michael Foot.

Playing into the hands of the right

All of this was manna from heaven for influential critics of the company on the political right (like the commentator Bernard Levin) who argued that continuing to support the company with public funds was ‘throwing good money after bad’.

It stiffened the resolve of the Conservative Government to wash their hands of BL (preferably through a sell-off) – an objective implicit in its manifesto for the June 1983 General Election. Which the Conservative Party won…

Industrial strategy as it concerned the motor industry increasingly looked instead towards the seduction of inward investment (notably Nissan), while Austin Rover was very nearly sold, to Ford, in 1986 (at the same time as the truck and Land Rover business was very nearly sold to GM).

End of an era

As it turned out, the ‘Washing-up Dispute’ at Cowley would prove almost the swansong for such huge strikes at Austin Rover, or Rover.

There was another highly damaging 16-day dispute across the company in late 1984 but the Industrial Relations Act of that year (which the strike was orchestrated in part to oppose) played a part in transforming the situation.

Most significantly, it mandated secret ballots for strike action in place of the much abused ‘show of hands’ seen in many a mass meeting in Cofton Park (Longbridge) and elsewhere.

The workforce at Cowley and Longbridge showed no enthusiasm for downing tools in support of Arthur Scargill and the miners (as some militants urged in 1984/85). And, by the end of the 1980s, strikes were a rarity at Austin Rover (and across the motor industry).

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, of course.

Austin Maestros at Cowley

Chris Cowin
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    • Though – as I point out at the end – that dispute was almost the last “big battle” within Austin Rover – and Cowley at least wasn’t really “doomed”. It kept on building cars as part of Rover Group until 2000 and since 2001 has built approx. 4.3 million BMW MINI cars as MINI plant Oxford – located on what was formerly the PSF site at Cowley. (A level of annual output that compares well with the 1980s).

  1. One of the last major disputes in the car industry and a brief flashback to the bad old days of the seventies, but luckily Cowley turned the corner and hasn’t lost a day to industrial action since 1984 and now produces cars people want to buy. Even the old Cowley name has been replaced by Plant Oxford to banish any memories of the bad old days.

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