From the Spectator, 14 February 1976, p.16.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Working in a car factory is not very pleasant – computerised production lines, repetitive work in noisy and unpleasant conditions frequently add up to a Modern Times type of alienation. The spectacular strike record of most of our motor car factories gives eloquent testimony to the fact that, even given the financial loss, it is pleasant to stop occasionally. At the Chrysler Linwood factory they have, in addition to the standard aggravations, difficulties peculiar to Linwood.
Opened in 1962, with the aid of large lumps of government money, it was intended to provide an alternative source of employment to the declining heavy industry of the Clyde. The factory, like Linwood town itself, looks as if it were put up in a bit of a hurry. Like some single-crop, banana republic its future was invested in one model, the Imp.
The labour force was “green”, not I hasten to add unskilled – the Clyde probably has more-timed-served workers than anywhere else, but certainly unused to modern mass production methods. The management were not “green” in the same way, but they certainly were not familiar with the robust independence of Glasgow workers.
The Imp was basically as good a small car as you could buy, but it had too many teething problems in its design, it was probably too late and, in any event, it never seriously challenged the Mini.
With all of these difficulties of settling down it is not very surprising that industrial relations at Linwood were not very good from the beginning. It may surprise a number of people without much knowledge of the situation, among whom we can clearly count Messrs Varley and Wilson, that over the last three years there has been very little native industrial disruption. Such stoppage as there have been were a result of difficulties outside Linwood.
The slow but steady course of Chrysler in the direction of the knackers’ yard, over the last couple of years, has not been lost on the workforce. Before Christmas 1975 the men were on a three-day week. When they left for the Christmas holiday it was assumed by many that there would be no company when they returned.
In January there was more three-day working and the trauma of the Varley-Riccardo talks. Those talks, fate and Mr Harold Lever’s faith in private enterprise resulted in the £162 million rescue bid which, incidentally, has a certain crazy logic about it. To let Chrysler go to the wall would have cost £150 million in lost revenue and unemployment payments, not to mention the loss of the Shah of Persia’s big order for cars.
Whatever the merit of the rescue operation, it was accepted by the somewhat punch-drunk Linwood workers, even though it carried the condition of 1,300 redundancies. Surprisingly, 2,300 volunteered to be made redundant – a response to the apparent lack of enthusiasm for Chrysler’s future shown by a number of government ministers, not least by Mr Varley. The attitude of several workers I spoke to was, “Why wait until everybody is sacked before looking for another job”.
It is against the background of these events that the latest Chrysler strike must be viewed. The sequence of events is complicated, but suffice it to say that there is good and sufficient evidence to conclude that the workers’ representatives were convinced that their long-standing, factory agreement and disputes procedure were being cavalierly treated by a local management, who were themselves the helpless creatures of the overall Chrysler UK management.
Matters were not at all improved by the statement made by the abrasive Mr Don Lander that: “We are here to make cars, not to go through procedures.” Whatever the subtleties of this phase of the dispute, and they will elude all but the dedicated, the Chrysler managers were obviously expecting an early cave-in by the hired help. Their expectations were, in the event, sadly disappointed. Glasgow workers and Chrysler men are nothing if not Glasgow workers, have a tradition of independence and a predeliction for complicated argument
Once the idea got abroad that the management were attempting to renege on agreements then the old Adam was roused. Craft skill and basic trade unionism are matters that bite deep on the Clydeside consciousness. Whatever psychological victory might have been won in the effete south was not possible at Linwood. A mass meeting almost unanimously, decided for strike action. Even then the stewards, who were as well aware as anybody of the precarious state of the company, begged the management to reconsider but without success.
The strike was on and so, also, was a rather unpleasant press campaign against the Chrysler strikers. The Evening Standard produced a cartoon by Jak, which showed mindless elements rushing over a precipice above the heading “Linwood lemmings”. The Daily Mail went one better and described them as nation-wrecking mercenaries. None of this was lost on the workers, who had one or two less publicised and unprintable things to say about the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail.
The comments of Mr Varley and Harold Wilson, who both suggested that the blame lay with the strikers, left out of account the point made with some force by Norman Buchan (MP for the constituency) that employers do not strike very often, they have other methods of exerting pressure, while for workers it is sometimes the only answer that they have.
In the outcome the strike that started off for a few pounds and was then elevated to a matter of principle was settled by the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service. The men got the cash and retained their agreements. A complete victory you might think. Funnily enough the stewards are not crowing over this “victory”. As John Carty, the convenor says: “We want to build cars, that is how we earn our living. We did not want this strike and it is certainly no precedent for the future”. I, if nobody else, believe him.
If the workers side can be absolved from most of the blame, apart from a certain ingrained stubborness, then what of the management. Perhaps it is that after driving Mr Varley and the government, against their will, into the rescue plan they felt confident enough to take on the workforce at Linwood
In his statement issued just after his ignominious defeat Mr Lander, in an attempt to make the best of a bad job, claimed that the strike had now made it possible to start serious negotiations with National trade union officials on a number of outstanding problems. If this is so it seems a very expensive way of communicating with national officials, even given the cost of first class post these days
The suggestions that the strike may well have cleared the air in such a way as to facilitate the smooth introduction of the Avenger line later this year has the strong feel of post facto rationalisation. Whatever the Chrysler UK tactics may have been, there can be little doubt that there are a few uneasy heads among the management this week.
The moral of the story is quite a simple one, even if it has escaped Harold Wilson this time. Trade unionists may well bend quite a lot in the face of rising unemployment, but while they are still actually in a job they will not lightly let go of that which they think they have won. At Linwood the retreat was genuine enough, but it was certainly not a rout.
Nor can it be said, as Wilson suggested last Thursday that they are idle. For a mixed production line, the Linwood track is the fastest in Europe, turning out some 60 cars an hour. It might be a good idea now if everybody, including politicians and journalists, shut up and let them get on with producing cars.
Last updated on 2.11.2003