Archive : Exit villain of the piecework

Clifford Webb looks at the background to the new pay deal for British Leyland’s Longbridge workers.

George Turnbull

Unlike some motor industry leaders Mr George Turnbull, the 46-year-old deputy managing director of British Leyland, is not given to making headline comments. Indeed, in the four years that he has headed the group’s Austin Morris volume car division he has been particularly guarded in his pronouncements. But on the significance of yesterday’s piecework “breakthrough” at Longbridge he has no reservations.

“The changeover from piece-work which is still continuing in other parts of the group is absolutely vital. I do not believe that Austin Morris could have survived without changing over to a flat-rate system. I am not saying that it will solve all our problems. There are obviously still some industrial relations problems with flat-rate systems. But it does have tremendous advantages as we have seen from the greater stability we are now getting in the Cowley area where it was first introduced. We are now asking men to work at a reasonable pace with out over exerting themselves, and they all get the same rate of pay. Under piecework there is no doubt there were many inequalities with some men getting good prices and some getting bad prices.”

Leyland Motors merged with British Motor Holdings in May, 1968. Six months later Mr Turnbull moved from Triumph Coventry to Longbridge to become managing director of Austin Morris, the heart of the old BMH empire and the make or break sector accounting for more than half the group’s total turnover.

” I felt immediately that because of the vast scale of the operation at Austin Morris and, quite frankly, to preserve the future of the company, we had to get on to day work. The frequent small disputes arising from piecework had a much more damaging effect on profitability in a high volume plant than in a low volume operation. I called all our senior people together and decided that although measured day work was a dirty word to many of our employees we had to begin preaching the gospel of the inevitability of the change.”

But at a time when the pressing need was to make profits for the sole surviving British motor group this attempt to interfere with a system of working which had become a way of life in Midland car factories produced costly strikes. Did he ever have second thoughts?

“Despite the confrontations that followed I never had second thoughts. It was really painful at times when we had piecework disputes but we stuck to our guns and refused to meet big piecework claims. I have always remained convinced that the whole future of the company depended on the change and I told everyone here from directors down to the shop floor that it must come, would come, and the sooner the better.”

To appreciate the full significance of yesterday’s decision, however, it is necessary to relate the piecework issue to the whole Austin Morris concept. British Leyland has been widely criticized for soft pedalling the urgently needed rationalization of the scattered, loosely controlled collection of 18 factories with a combined pay load of nearly 90,000, more than half the group’s total labour force. At the time of the merger there was widespread overmanning, duplication of model production and only one new car in the development pipeline (the Maxi).

To make matters even worse little had been done to pull together Austin Morris and Pressed Steel Fisher, the tripartite partnership which formed the old BMC. Mr Turnbull said much of the first three years of the rmerger was taken up with internal reconstruction and the introduction of a number of new ” high powered ” personnel.

” A major problem was Pressed Steel Fisher, the body building subsidiary for the whole group. It was to a large extent autonomous in management terms and also in accounting terms. In fact, it made its own profit. It was not really possible to know true costs because consolidation was done in profit terms at lower levels and added together. We had to reconstruct the whole set-up into one division so that we worked on direct costs and then consolidated profits at the end when we sold the vehicle.”

He said that on the hourly paid side of the labour force the main problem was that he had too many facilities running.

“It was obvious that by skilful planning we could make some sizable economies in terms of labour force, staffing and closing down certain facilities. But the real problem was that we could not close factories immediately because they were already involved in the manufacture of cars we were selling. There was no point in shutting them off because they were part of an integrated set-up with components being manufactured at one plant and assembled at another. Our first real opportunity to make important changes was the introduction of the new Marina.”

Two years ago, with the Marina ready for production at Cowley, the time was ripe for the first attempt to change from piecework to the flat rate system operated by every other major car manufacturer in Britain. It was very much a crunch situation. But despite the foreboding comments of union officials the changeover went through and the Marina became the first non-piecework car to be produced by British Leyland. It was quite a milestone.

Not only did the British company at last have a competitive con- tender in the Ford, Chrysler, Vauxhall sector of the market, but it was being produced by a system that offered greater stability of production and a higher profit margin. That accounted for the old Morris part of the empire. But there still remained Longbridge, the traditional home of Austin and the most militant piecework stronghold of all. The planners had decided that in the spring of 1973 this, the largest car complex in Britain, would commence production of the AD067, a more technically advanced model than the Marina and intended to combat the inroads of this type of imported car.

Side by side the Marina and the AD067 would give a formidable market coverage. Some 18 months ago the powerful shop stewards committee at Longbridge rejected unofficial management approaches for talks on the changeover to a flat rate. But the company pressed on. Unofficial talks became official. Confrontations and strikes were inevitable. Months dragged by with seemingly no progress at all, and all the time millions of pounds were being invested in tooling up for a car which the company had declared would only be produced if piecework ended.

Nearly five weeks ago the company decided that the urgency of the situation called for an unorthodox approach. They persuaded the whole works committee plus 27 shop stewards to begin negotiations at the plush Chateau Impney Hotel, Droitwich, with the declared intention of meeting there daily until an acceptable package was found or absolute deadlock reached. The success of that operation was revealed yesterday.

Now Mr Turnbull has to make up for lost time if he is to launch the AD067 on time. One of his most pressing needs will be the re-education of supervisory staff. Under piece-work foremen had to tread so warily that their authority on the shop floor passed to shop stewards. Now they have to take on greater responsibilities.

As a Cowley foreman put it: “We had to learn how to give orders, and if you think that’s easy try talking sharply to an assembly line worker who will yell, ‘Steward’ if you wish him good morning and he doesn’t agree.”

Keith Adams

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