Jim Higgins

The year of Scanlon?

(April 1976)

From the Spectator, 10 April 1976, p.12.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Last week British Leyland settled with their former second-in-command Mr John Barber. By a payment of “substantial compensation” they ended the long dispute over Mr Barber’s dismissal. Under the terms of his service contract, Mr Barber was entitled to a very large sum – not to be measured in under six figures.

Ironically, in the same week Leyland were prevented from settling with thirty-two toolmakers at their SU Carburettor plant, whom they were extremely anxious to maintain in full-time employment.

A further irony is that the toolmakers had an agreement which, if not as watertight as Mr Barber’s, was accepted by the company. The difference was one of degree. The SU toolmakers would have agreed to a once and for all payment totalling £3,200.

Why did so trifling a sum cause such a difficulty? It was not a “red plot”, Indeed the “reds”, if you so consider Mr Scanlon and Mr Reg Birch were at one with their moderate colleagues on the AUEW executive in ordering the men back to work. The explanation is complicated and the solution not at all clear. Not only that, the SU strike was only one of five to hit Leyland. There were in addition the toolmakers at Triumph Coventry, toolmakers at eight Rover plants, machine tool fitters at Drew Lane suspension works and press operators at Llanelli. All of them were strategically placed to cause considerable loss of production, and none more so than the SU workers. You cannot get a car off the production line, let alone sell it, without a carburettor.

The disputes are in fact grounded in a contradiction between the need to rationalise pay and grading structures in a period of rigid restraint. Leyland has grown through the takeover and assimilation of a number of car and truck firms: Austin, Triumph, Rover, to name but a few. While this enabled a great deal of rationalisation and integration in production terms, it also brought hundreds of different payments and negotiating procedures. It is a measure of the size of the problem that even after a long period of industrial relations reorganisation, there are still fifty-eight bargaining units in British Leyland’s thirty-two plants.

It is this anarchic organisation, plus bad management, that has given rise to the present rash of disputes. Before 1 April, in seven representative Leyland toolrooms the lowest pay (at SU) was £60 a week, while the highest (at Rover Solihull) was £70. Between these two were four different wage rates. Moreover, for these same toolroom workers there were five different pay review dates ranging fairly evenly over the year. British Leyland, the unions and the toolmakers were anxious to harmonise both rates and review dates. Previous settlements have included promises to this effect. But with a restriction of twelve months between settlements and a £6 pay norm, differentials as high as £10 could not be reconciled. Different review dates also ensured constant leapfrogging.

This was the dilemma that the SU carburettor men were attempting to force to an issue. In April 1975 they accepted, with true altruism, a £5.50 increase, which was £1 less than they could have obtained. They agreed to this because they accepted management statements about the sad state of the company and because they were promised a further review in December 1975 to bring their pay up to the highest toolroom rates. When December came they were caught by the twelve-month rule. They were prepared to acknowledge that they could not achieve complete parity but they wanted the full £6 from December, without having to wait a full year until this April. They did not get the money and on 9 March they struck work. Everyone was very sympathetic and did not begrudge them the actual cash – but to pay it would breach the previously immaculate pay rode and, according to the Department of Employment, provide a green light to some 80,000 similarly placed workers throughout the engineering industry. That is why this strike went on for three weeks.

At Triumph Coventry, 350 toolroom workers demanded £1.85 which would give them parity with the tinsmiths. But this too, would have broken the twelve-month rule. The next settlement date for these workers is October. Despite the local AUEW, who told the men to stay out, they have returned to work. At Rover, 400 toolroom workers are asking £2 a week extra backdated to February 1975 which, they claim, is due from a previous settlement and is also within the pay code. They will probably get it.

At Llanelli, it was not AUEW members who were on strike. There it was Transport Union members, 650 press operators, arguing about the rate and the form of their grade’s transfer to the more highly skilled press maintenance work – which, to complicate matters further, is an AUEW job. Last, there are the machine tool fitters at Drew Lane, where they make suspensions for Austin and Morris cars. These men are demanding parity with the demonstrators, which would increase their pay from £66 to £78 a week-and that would break the pay code every way, defying mediation. This is probably why the Drew Lane workers are the remaining group on strike, with Austin and Morris car production still in jeopardy.

What sort of men are these toolmakers who have displayed such bargaining strength? One thing is certain: they are not militants in any accepted sense of that abused word. They are highly skilled men, with pride in their abilities. Within their union, the AUEW, they have always been a moderating force. Their craft pride entails a certain elitism, heightened by the fact that the less skilled production workers are generally members of the TGWU. These men measure their skill, obtained after long, low-paid, apprenticeships in the simplest way: by cash differentials. The current pay policy has struck at their central concern and turned their basically conservative attitudes into effective bloody-mindedness.

By their feelings, and in displaying their industrial muscle, they have already brought about great changes in the thinking of the principal architects of the next round of pay policy. Mr Jack Jones has accomplished a great shift from his previous insistence on the flat rate principle. Now he and Mr David Basnett – secretary of Britain’s third largest union, the GMWU – are calling for a combination of flat-rate and percentage in Phase Two pay policy. But even this dramatic change of front may not be sufficient for the AUEW. Mr Scanlon, writing in the latest issue of Industrial Management, insists that only a percentage principle will satisfy his union. It is interesting to speculate that, with his recent conversion to a voluntary incomes policy and with the sure backing of his previously moderate skilled members, Mr Scanlon may displace Mr Jones as the main author of the Mark II policy. If 1975 was the year of Jack Jones, 1976 may be the year of Hugh Scanlon.


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