From Socialist Review, 14 December 1981-13 December 1981: 10, pp.11-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
At the beginning of November it looked, briefly, as if the most amazing thing was going to happen. The workers in what the press treat as the biggest lame duck, Leyland, seemed set to lead the whole class in an onslaught on the 4 per cent pay limit being imposed by the government and the CBI. For one day the company was completely strike bound, with pickets that recalled the miners strike of 1972 or the steel strike of 1980 rather than the passivity that normally accompanies car industry disputes.
The strike did not last beyond the second day. To find out why – and to find out why key groups of workers struck again over conditions a week later – Chris Harman talked to three SWP shop stewards in Longbridge.
They began by stressing the preparedness to fight that existed in the factory prior to the strike.
‘In the fortnight before we had a continual barrage of letters and propaganda off the management. Yet if anything the determination got stronger as time went on. People’s feelings got all aroused, partly due to threats we were getting. I’ve never known the feeling as good as in those two weeks, and there didn’t seem to be anything the company could do right.
‘There was the most thorough preparation we’ve ever seen for a strike there. The stewards put out printed sheets, half of which was information, the other half a list of things people could do to help the strike – picketing, whether on nights or days, supplying tea and sugar, getting their wives involved – for them to tick off and supply their names and addresses. Rotas were drawn up.’
This showed that:
‘Quite a number of stewards are beginning to learn the lessons of past setbacks. There’s been a fair drop in the number of stewards we’ve got in the plant since the sacking of Robbo two years ago, with a higher percentage of the stewards who do remain prepared to have a go. We’re not in a situation where anyone could take a steward’s job because they thought it was the first step to being a foreman or anything like that. In taking a steward’s job now you’re putting your neck on the line.’ ‘At some of the gates on the Monday there were over a hundred pickets. The evening shift was very well covered as well. There was probably two thousand of the workforce actually participating in the pickets on the Monday and the Tuesday. That’s out of a workforce of 14½ thousand.’
What destroyed this momentum was the deal stitched up between trade union national officials and the company on the Saturday night. On the Tuesday, workers at Longbridge and most other plants -although not at Cowley – voted two to one to accept the deal.
‘You can still see the effect of the reliance on officialdom. So many of the arguments in relation to strikes now revolve around the issue of whether it will be made official or not. It was only a minority – although the size of the minority surprised, me – who accepted the argument that we go on strike and if the officials back us that’s a bonus.
‘Many of the people who did vote for a return to work have been apologising to me since for doing it. They say, what could we do, we didn’t see how we could win when the officials have done this deal etc.’
‘People realised that in order to defeat the Tories’ pay policy and the likes of Michael Edwardes – who hasn’t lost a battle yet over Leyland – we would have to generalise the strike. The fact of challenging the Tories and the involvement of Len Murray, Michael Foot and these people only served to reinforce the idea that we were talking about a national issue for the working class.
‘People went along to the park thinking that we didn’t have enough going for us without the massive official support from outside to win the dispute.’
One factor that reinforced this feeling that they weren’t strong enough to win was the way Jack Adams put the stewards’ recommendation to continue the strike.
‘I don’t think it would have made a decisive impact on the vote, but there’s no doubt the way he presented it did help the vote to go for a return to work. It was agreed the day before at the leading stewards meeting that they wouldn’t bullshit the workers, that they’d give a proper presentation to them of what happened at the meeting between the officials and management at ACAS on the Saturday.
‘But they would also be putting the recommendation of the leading stewards that the strike continue and the reasons for it. What happened was that Jack Adams leant over backwards to give a fair representation of the officials’ case, and his presentation of the leading stewards argument for the rejection of that case was low key.
‘Jack Adams and quite a high percentage of the leading stewards are very concerned about their relationship with the officials as well as their relationship with the shop floor, and they are trying to keep a very careful balance between the two. That’s a relic of the old participation system, where the link up with officialdom and looking to a higher level of leadership reflects itself particularly through the senior stewards.’
In terms of the officials, it was not only the right wing leaders of the engineering and electricians union who effectively sabotaged the strike. The ‘left’ leaders of the TGWU were not that much better.
‘Kitson didn’t come out for the deal. But his attitude wasn’t really much different from that of Chapple and Boyd. I saw the union leaders on Weekend World. If anything the attitude which was adopted by Kitson had a worse effect than the attitude that was adopted by Ken Cure. Everything Kitson said was ducking away from any sort of positive approach. He wouldn’t say go back to work and he was saying if you stop out we’ll continue to make it official. But he was putting it in such a way as to give the impression that it would be a complete waste of time.’
‘The T&G over the last couple of years has always wanted to appear more closely involved in backing their members than the other unions. Rank and file members have got more control and have more influence in what goes on inside the T&G than in the AUEW or the EEPTU. But what Kitson did in this dispute, was to allow a whole number of T&G policies to effectively go by default.
‘The so-called “compromise” deal involves a new arrangement of the trade unions inside Leyland, with a severe sapping of any power the shop stewards have got and a no-strike clause. The T&G had a policy of being opposed to these things. Yet they went through on the nod in the so-called improved offer. Kitson overturned a whole year or two years’ work by the senior shop stewards inside BL by allowing this so-called improved offer to go forward.
‘Leyland have not only got away with a 10 per cent wage cut, but have managed to shove in every piece of legislation they were looking for over the last 18 months or so.’
‘The new procedure agreement wipes out the role of the shop steward and institutes a type of work council system where you’ve got representatives sitting in joint committees with management responsible for dealing with any sort of negotiations. It’s like the old Whitley council system.’
The vote at Cowley went the other way than at Longbridge. The three stewards gave their views on this:
‘Basically, Cowley felt more secure. They were in as good or even a better situation than Longbridge were last year. They’ve got the Acclaim, and the reorganisation means the Rover plant being shut down and jobs being moved across into Cowley. It looked to them as if they’d got a secure future. They’ve got weapons they can fight with, since the company can’t afford to lose the Acclaim now.’
‘Longbridge isn’t as secure as it was last year. The Allegro is definitely known to be finishing at the beginning of next year. The Mini is working at a quarter of the capacity it was working at and there’s doubt about how long it will carry on. There’s only really the Metro – and now people are beginning to have their doubts about the golden future the Metro promised. To people in Longbridge it looks now like just another in a wide range of similar cars. So there’s great feelings of apprehension about the future at Longbridge.’
But why were people who were frightened to keep up the wages strike back out of the gates a week later over what would seem to be a less important issue?
‘On the surface of it it looks ridiculous that workers accept a 10 per cent wage cut and then walk out a few days later over the rest break thing.
‘But we faced the same position last year. At Easter the workforce was faced with this ultimatum “accept this 92 page document – if you start back after Easter you will be deemed to be accepting it”. People did start back. Yet within a few days they were fighting it.
‘There was the dispute over togging up allowances for certain groups, which was very much a minor issue. But it was an issue that everyone could see. They were faced with it every day, it was a real genuine issue, and they thought that they were the only ones who knew what it was about.
‘National negotiations on national wage claims and procedure agreements tend to wash over the heads of workers. But when it comes to a question of actual working conditions, daily then they know what it’s about and they are quite prepared to accept that no-one else knows what it’s about, and they are prepared to fight on it.
‘Each time they’ve tried to introduce part of the 92 page agreement that affects working conditions drastically, they’ve had resistance. Usually one part of the plant has been isolated, they’ve been out a couple of days, they’ve got broke and they’ve gone back. They haven’t gained the support. That’s the difference this time basically.
‘It’s still confined to one area of the plant. But a lot of other workers have been laid off and the feeling is still relatively solid.’
‘In some areas of the plant the company hasn’t really imposed the 92 page document yet. In other areas, where they have been working flat out from bell to bell, the people really feel that the imposition of the rest allowance cuts on them was just the final straw.
‘It’s very little to do with tea breaks. We don’t have tea breaks as such. They’re called relaxations allowances or rest allowances for a specific reason. You need the rest allowance to recover from the work and to have a chance of surviving. In the breaks, which only last 15 minutes on the track, you have to go to the toilet, get yourselves some tea, go and get yourselves food if the canteens are open. For a bloke whose working himself into the ground to keep pace with the track these rest allowances are the only thing that keeps you sane. So it’s not a tea break strike. That’s the important thing.’
‘It is a fatigue allowance. I was reading an article on Taylorism that some PhD fellow wrote. He was talking about the Bedoe system. Built into the timing on the job is the system of fatigue allowances. They calculate on the very cold scientific basis that the optimum work that they can get out of people spread over a period can only be reached if there is rest from fatigue. So the rest allowances are actually part of the calculation in getting the maximum efficiency out of a worker.
‘Without adequate breaks, the level of absenteeism rises. It reflects itself in the bloke who can’t get in on the Friday or the Monday.’
‘But the company think they’ve got the answer to that with the way they operate the disciplinary scheme. Half the people in our area have got written or further warnings on their necks at the moment.’
‘The management are taking the Bedoe system to its ultimate, breaking down the fatigue allowance calculation by whipping out all the old people and the sick people and so on. When people come back after being sick, and sign on back because they’re fit for lighter work, they’ve been telling them, “We’ve got no work for you, go back on the box or take your redundancy”. They’re trying to get rid of the old, the sick, the disabled and just to keep the young people. With three million unemployed, they don’t think they have to worry about keeping people for a lifetime. They just want the young sprinters.’
‘It’s the law of the jungle up there. Only the fittest survive. If you’re not prepared to supply the amount of energy they need, they get rid of you.’
‘The pensions people did a survey a couple of weeks ago, and they reckon that in Longbridge there’s only two people who will reach retiring age in the next twelve months.’
The danger for the rest allowance strike at the time of the interview was that only part of the plant so far is affected – the body and assembly lines, as opposed to the part supplying engines for Cowley.
‘Any strike can’t standstill. It’s either got to escalate or its going to stagnate and deteriorate.’
Unfortunately, it was a fortnight before the senior stewards agreed to try to get the other sections out.
‘At first they tried every bureaucratic manoeuvre under the sun to prevent a resolution for this going through the joint shop stewards. At the first meeting at the beginning of the dispute we put a resolution in, but we weren’t allowed to move it because it hadn’t been on the table for five days. At the second meeting, our resolution was talked out by another raised at the meeting. At the third meeting we found they’d moved round to our position – two weeks too late.’
The result was that a large section of the plant was not touched by the first two weeks of the strike.
‘In the track areas, on the body side and the assembly side, the argument was put successfully on the first day on the night shift that though management weren’t imposing the cut in rest time on them yet, they had to take action. The works committee advice to continue working normally didn’t have much effect.
‘But in the power and train area – which produces engines for Cowley – there weren’t the people there to put these arguments. The easy option was taken, so they found themselves working until such time as management feel the opportunity is there to impose what they want.’
The strike so far had been very passive.
‘The overwhelming defeat and the overwhelming demoralisation that came out of the defeat on pay has had its effect on the people who would normally be arguing for picketing the gates, for taking action and activity. They just haven’t had the energy to argue for those policies. The only people who’ve actually argued for them have been committed revolutionaries – basically the SWP and our contacts. And we are far too small to swing major issues like starting picketing.
‘There’s no cars being produced, and so people have felt “why bother picketing?” It’s a very passive strike.’
Yet despite this:
‘It’s got to be pointed out that the present strike is the longest major strike in Longbridge for a good few years.’
‘It’s the longest strike I can recall, going back to 1953, which was the 13 week strike.’
The battle over pay in Leyland may have joined 1981’s long list of defeats and catastrophes. But the one day of mass picketing and the subsequent rest break strike show that there is a minority of workers prepared to fight, despite everything. And that means Thatcher and Edwardes cannot expect to get their way for ever.
Last updated on 15 May 2010