ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, January 1976


Peter Bain

Linwood 1975:
One Year in a Car Factory


From International Socialism, No.85, January 1976, pp.4-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Chrysler today joined a growing list of major American companies that have been pushed towards the brink of collapse, by the recession. It has begun an extensive retrenchment that will, according to its chairman, Mr Lynn Townsend, leave the firm ‘considerably smaller and leaner.’ The Guardian, 16 January 1975.

THE ABOVE Declaration of policy lies at the heart of Chrysler’s threat to pull out of Britain.

By far the smallest of the motor industry ‘Big Three’, Chrysler decided at that time to withdraw from competing in the same league as General Motors and Ford. The regularity with which it was necessary to invest in new models, combined with some disastrous Detroit management decisions about market trends, forced Chrysler to cop out once and for all.

In Europe, Chrysler had belatedly picked up Rootes (in Britain) and Simca (in France) – the remnants left by the other motor giants. Their labour policy was clear. The Spanish plant operated under conditions where strikes were illegal. Simca relied on forcing immigrant labour from Portugal, Spain and Morocco to join the company union. Any immigrant who tried to join a genuine union was threatened with having his labour permit withdrawn, and subsequent deportation to the tender mercies of the right-wing regime in his native country. Naturally, Chrysler decided to concentrate European production in France and Spain.

The last new Chrysler model was the Avenger in 1970, and even that was designed by Rootes. The hoped-for 12½ per cent share of the British market was never achieved, though a huge deal was signed with the Shah of Iran to supply C.K.D. (Completely Knocked Down) kits from Britain for assembly. The background against which Townsend announced Detroit’s new policy was extremely serious. In Europe, capacity in the industry was 2½ times actual output. Volkswagen announced a loss of £150 million. Alfa-Romeo’s accumulated losses amounted to £130 million, while the French government has just bailed out Citroen at a similar cost.

In Britain, the estimated 1975 market was 1.2 million, while capacity was 2.2 million. British Leyland had shed 10,000 workers, with thousands more to follow. Vauxhall offered voluntary redundancies, and Ford was about to embark on a programme of short time working (including a company-provoked 8-week strike at Dagenham).

The Lay-Offs

Chrysler’s UK management had threatened lay-offs in December 1974. At Linwood, most of the workforce were told that they would be laid off for ten days in December. An angry mass meeting unanimously voted to give seven days’ strike notice unless the lay-offs were withdrawn and the company gave a clear indication of their plans.

Without consulting the shop stewards, far less re-convening the mass meeting, the Joint Representative Council, consisting of convenors and sub-convenors from all the unions, withdrew the strike notice when the ‘down’ days were reduced to four.

On Christmas Eve, after most workers were safely out of the plant until after the New Year, the company announced a programme of 20 days’ lay-off until the end of February. Under the lay-off agreement, only 16 days’ pay are paid (at 65 per cent of the basic rate) for planned short-time. So after the first two months of 1975, most of the workforce were left with only four days’ lay-off pay to see them through the rest of the year.

The question of nationalisation was raised by IS members and other militants. The stock answer from convenors was to express their support for nationalisation, to point out that it was, indeed, the long-agreed policy of the joint shop stewards, but it wasn’t on just now.

When Chrysler announced their next cutback, it provoked a stronger response from the Linwood workforce. The company proposed another ten days’ lay-off until the end of April, and a reduction in the assembly track speed from 45 to 33 cars an hour from 5 March. (In September 1973, the track speed was 60 cars an hour.)

Again, a mass meeting agreed to the stewards’ recommendation that they should refuse to accept Chrysler’s cuts unless everyone was put back on 40 hours, or the lay-off agreement was extended. The cuts were universally seen as proof of a run-down at Linwood. Four days before the new schedules were due to be implemented, another JSS meeting was called at which nine JRC members spoke. Eight of them argued that now wasn’t the time to go into dispute. The stewards agreed by a 2-1 margin, and the workforce followed suit.

This sign of weakness encouraged the company to put the boot in on conditions, and many sections lost time over the next few weeks in defence of working conditions and practice. However, since the Iran order – for which Linwood supplied body pressings, gear-boxes and rear-axles – was falling behind, the company requested overtime in some areas. All through the previous period, overtime, incredibly, was being worked. In theory, the JRC was controlling overtime and only allowing that necessary to ensure 40 hours’ work for other areas in the factory. In reality, they tried continually to avoid this responsibility, and considerable friction arose between groups on short-time and others working overtime.

On this occasion, the JSS insisted that the above policy was carried out, and even then it was dependent on Chrysler giving a guarantee of full employment until the summer holidays in mid-July.

The 1975 Wage Claim and ‘Participation’

AROUND the same period, early May, the annual wage claim was submitted. It contained hardy annuals like ‘the 35-hour week, more holidays, extra relief time for track-workers’ etc. On money, the claim was for a ‘substantial’ increase plus a cost of living factor. Attempts to put a figure of £15 across-the-board plus 60p for every one per cent cost-of-living increase were defeated at the JRC’s recommendation, with large minorities voting in favour. The stewards also reiterated their opposition to national bargaining, which the company were expected to raise again.

At the Stoke plant in Coventry, which supplies engines for all Chrysler’s UK operations, a claim for £15 had been reduced by pressure from union officials, and with either deep cunning or total naivety from the convenors, to a demand for an immediate £8. When the company refused to reply to the claim, the workforce went on strike, and on 15 May most Linwood workers were laid off as a result.

Into the middle of this, the company flung proposals for ‘workers’ participation’ or the ‘Employee Participation Programme’, as they described it. (Henceforth referred to as EPP).

They proposed the establishment of union-management plant committees with sub-committees in each plant for matters such as quality and quantity manning, costs, training etc. There would be a national similarly structured, plus a central negotiating committee covering all plants and all unions. If this were accepted ‘in principle’ by 12 July (so they could celebrate an Orange Walk?) along with compulsory arbitration, then every worker would receive £50. If the scheme were in operation by 24 December, another £50 would be paid out.

An IS factory bulletin at the time described Chrysler’s proposals as the ‘destruction of independent trade union organisation,’ and that about sums it up. At the same time the company announced that they had applied for a government loan of £35 million to build a new model in Britain.

After four weeks on the streets, Stoke settled for £8 from 1 July, and Linwood returned to work on 10 June, having lost another 16 working days. Wage negotiations continued with the Linwood stewards resisting company attempts to widen differentials to bring their wage structure into line with Coventry.

Eventually, increases of £9.43-£10.56 (21-23 per cent) for 40 hours day-shift were accepted, going up to £16 more a week for 3-shift workers. Part of the increase was a further move towards parity with Coventry, and it was agreed that the stewards would meet on a combine basis to attempt to work out a national wage structure before the 1976 negotiations commenced. The lower paid grades in fact achieved parity, but the largest group, grade 2, consisting of track workers and other production operators, with a wage of £59.75 for 40 hours dayshift, were still about £3 behind.

By August, the EPP still had not been accepted, but after assuring the Linwood stewards that all they had to do was to allow the company to state publicly that the unions were prepared to discuss the proposals, the JRC got the go-ahead to sign. The £50 was then paid, but the eventual combine statement went a good deal further than the Linwood stewards had agreed. It was claimed that Chrysler were desperate to convince the government that labour relations were good so as to help them obtain the loan they had requested.

Right after this venture in ‘workers’ participation’, Chrysler re-introduced us to participation in an exercise we had become used to: applying for unemployment benefit. This time they announced on 1 September that the vehicle assembly would be laid off for seven days in September and another eight in October, starting immediately. The press shop had been applying restrictions for two months, and continued on full-time.

The next day, the shop stewards rejected the company’s statement, pointing out that, under the Linwood plant agreement (‘the Yellow Book’) there had to be four weeks’ notice of short-time working, and six weeks in areas where overtime had been worked. The events that followed showed only too clearly the extent to which the workforce had lost confidence in the ability of the shop stewards to defend them.

Because anyone who has received unemployment or sickness benefit up to 13 weeks previously remains in benefit without having to fulfil three waiting days for which no payment is made, most vehicle assembly workers demanded to be laid off as Chrysler had proposed, since they would be out of benefit unless this happened! So another shop stewards’ meeting decided by 126-109 to ignore the long-standing protection from sudden lay-offs that had been fought for, and to accept immediate lay-offs.

The company, again encouraged by this retreat, tried to increase production in some areas, and even requested that some sections on short-time could work overtime on their working days! They overstepped the mark on this occasion, and after a few disputes, backed off.

Chrysler followed this victory however by announcing another eight ‘down’ days for November, nine in December, and an intention to reopen discussions on EPP! The Linwood stewards agreed that no discussion on EPP should take place until the company gave an assurance that they planned to stay in Britain.

Enter the Flame-Thrower

ON 23 OCTOBER, 50 shop stewards delegates from all the UK plants gathered in Coventry. Before going to meet the company, they agreed that unless they received cast-iron guarantees that Chrysler intended staying in Britain, the discussion on EPP would be terminated.

The company spokesman, Peter Griffiths, UK deputy managing director, expressed doubts about his ability to give the assurances the committee desired, since what he would have to tell them amounted to ‘the bleakest future ever.’ He went on to say that although it was not official company policy, it was his personal opinion (remember he was only the Deputy Managing Director!), that if sufficient numbers of workers did not leave within six weeks, there would have to be redundancies. However, if Chrysler could get the £35 million they were after, they would definitely build a new model in Britain.

Because of the lay-off pattern, the first occasion when all the Linwood stewards could be called to a meeting was Wednesday 29 October. The JSS chairman, John Carty, reported along the lines indicated above. He ended by saying that the JRC were recommending a campaign to bring pressure on the government to grant Chrysler’s request for £35 million.

Counterposed to the JRC’s recommendation was an amendment which called for ‘no redundancies – nationalise Chrysler without compensation’, and a campaign to mobilise the workforce behind these demands.

It was argued that in the light of available evidence, it was irresponsible to encourage the workforce to believe that it was in their interests to support Chrysler’s demand.

We knew that the company had embarked on a world-wide policy of rationalisation. We knew that their European plans were based on France and Spain. We were in the middle of the deepest economic recession since the Thirties with no chance of any improvement for more than a year.

The car industry had huge surplus capacity. We knew about Chrysler’s Swiss operation – selling UK products at a loss to a Swiss subsidiary, then resold at a profit recorded to the Swiss company – and this meant they were transferring huge sums abroad. Chrysler had also received tens of millions from public funds.

Under these circumstances, it was unrealistic to tie our jobs to the Chrysler corporation. We had to forget about saving Chrysler, and launch a campaign to save jobs.

This was countered by Bro Carty who said that while we all had our ideals, we had to be realistic. He was supported by Rennie Rigby, AUEW sub-convenor, and member of the Communist Party. Bro. Rigby gesticulated in the direction of the mover of the amendment and denounced ‘these people who talk about nationalisation’ being ‘in cloud Cuckoo-land.’ His clarion call, delivered with some passion, was that we should bring pressure to bear on MPs and through them on the government, to get Chrysler the £35 million they said they needed to build a new model.

When the issue was put to a vote, the amendment received 50 votes out of 250. The previous day the TGWU works committee had split 6-18 on similar proposals.

That same day, news came through that Riccardo, the president of Chrysler Corporation, had threatened to shut down the UK operation. By the following day, Bro. Carty was on TV speaking in favour of ‘nationalisation without compensation’ if Chrysler tried to withdraw.

Chrysler were suddenly front-page news. Riccardo appeared to spend all his time jetting between Detroit and London as he and the British government discussed what to do with Chrysler UK. If they had a magic wand, both parties would have made the whole shooting match disappear, and it soon became clear that the problem necessitating the series of meetings was not if there were to be redundancies, but how many thousands and where.

Chrysler’s original request for a £35 million loan became a demand for a £35 million grant, a government guarantee to underwrite Chrysler UK losses over a four-year period and government finance for a new model.

As speculation mounted over which plant would close and how many workers would go, the mass media did their bit by embarking on a campaign to convince the workforce that there was nothing they could do about the situation. We should accept that our fate was being decided by people somewhere up there who were fitted to decide these things.

The shop stewards’ organisation, meanwhile, was forced to abandon the policy of supporting Chrysler’s request for £35 million. The JRC had decided to call for nationalisation and on 1 November the AUEW stewards voted in favour of occupying the plant if Chrysler tried to pull out.

On hearing rumours that a majority in the Cabinet favoured the closure of Chrysler’s UK operation, the JRC were forced into action. So, on 18 November, a meeting of more than 300 Linwood stewards, blue and white collar, took place. During his introduction, Bro. Carty neglected to say anything about occupying the plant, but a resolution to that effect from the floor was accepted.

A mass meeting at Linwood the next morning voted overwhelmingly in favour of nationalising Chrysler and occupying the plant if they tried to withdraw. Later, more than 1,000 West of Scotland shop stewards attended a meeting called by the Linwood stewards. Despite a large element of generalised condemnations of capitalism in speeches, with few practical proposals about what to do in the here and now to fight unemployment, the tone of the meeting was enthusiastic. The meeting agreed to support, by all means, whatever action the Linwood workers took to defend their jobs.

The following Saturday, several hundred Chrysler workers took part in a demonstration against unemployment organised by Glasgow Trades Council, and 60 delegates (mainly non-shop stewards) went down to the 26 November lobby of Parliament.

Morale in the factory had been boosted by the mass meeting and the West of Scotland stewards’ meeting, as workers began to feel that they had a part to play in influencing events. Unfortunately, no attempt was made by the JRC to build on this upsurge in feeling, and the subsequent press campaign to induce a feeling of helplessness had some effect. Negotiations between Chrysler and the government dragged on endlessly. As the IS factory bulletin (2 December 1975) put it,

‘we’re getting a fine display of “mañana” tactics. Announcements are always going to be made “tomorrow” or “in a day or two” or “next week”.’

The bulletin went on to state:

‘It’s not over-stating the case to say that if the JRC do not take steps to involve and inform the workforce, then they’re playing at games. It will mean that they have no intention of fighting to defend every job.’

The demand was made for a weekly shop stewards’ bulletin to the workforce ‘explaining events, reporting developments and stating clearly our opposition to any redundancy. Every worker should insist that their shop steward holds section meetings at least once a week.’ The stewards agreed to produce such a bulletin the next day.

That same week Chrysler informed the Linwood workforce that they could not give a restart date after the New Year. The Ryton plant had already gone out the door without even a mass meeting and with no plans to fight the company, or even if they would meet at some future date.

The Linwood stewards decided to call a mass meeting before the last production working day (19 December), and to recommend that everybody should report to the factory on 5 January. If no restart date was given, then the factory should be occupied on that day.

Unfortunately, a mixture of clever timing by Chrysler and subtle manoeuvring by the convenors resulted in 300 workers being laid off indefinitely from 4 December and a further 500 a week later.

At the time of writing, the position is still that we have no restart date. Apart from the five days’ statutory holiday at Christmas and New Year, maintenance and staff workers will be in the plant. On the statutory holidays, the only people at work will be security guards. They held a meeting (they are ACTSS) and decided to support the workforce’s decision to defend jobs. They agreed to allow nothing to leave the factory on these days and to phone the shop stewards if the company tries to over-rule them.

The Struggle Ahead

WHAT ARE the lessons to be drawn from our experience of the last year, and what will happen next?

Firstly, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that the workforce in any plant have to be involved in their own struggle. Time and time again we have found it necessary to argue that a stewards’ bulletin should be produced, or that an immediate mass meeting was necessary, and/or that section meetings should be held to prepare for a mass meeting. Indeed, a measure of the convenors’ seriousness in any dispute was their attitude towards involving the rank-and-file.

The tactics we have argued for over the period have centred on occupying the plant and demanding nationalisation. As stated earlier, these were seen as immediate issues. Nationalisation was posed concretely in the light of our knowledge of Chrysler’s world policy against the background of economic recession. Occupation was, in reality, the only viable tactic to unite the workforce in defence of their conditions and jobs.

These policies, until recently, were not accepted. The process of going to the workforce, getting fighting decisions, and then recommending they should not be implemented when the time came, led to an increasing lack of confidence in the factory leadership.

This quotation from an IS factory bulletin in early March has more than a ring of truth about it:

‘It is strongly rumoured that the Grand Old Duke of York is considering taking legal action against the Chrysler Linwood JRC. The Duke claims that he holds the copyright on marching men to the top of the hill, and marching them down again. He says that the JRC’s recent performance infringes the copyright.’

As a result of the workforce’s experience, approximately 1,600 hourly-paid workers (out of a total of 7,000) have lifted their cards and left within the last 15 months. However strongly the alternative policies may have been opposed, the facts are that the policies adopted led to a 23 per cent cut in the workforce, 78 ‘down’ days in the vehicle assembly, and widespread loss of conditions throughout the plant.

The JRC has consistently advocated measures such as easing HP restrictions (January), import controls (November), and tried to avoid the question of nationalisation. This is not because they do not support nationalisation in theory, just that in practice other demands appear easier to attain and somehow less ‘political’. Despite the obvious depth of the economic crisis, they still tend to see the future in terms of the past, and cling to the belief that fairly minor remedial measures are sufficient.

The policies of nationalisation and factory occupation were adopted despite the leadership, not because of them. Despite attempts to hide from politics, it is becoming more and more difficult to do so.

IS’s efforts to influence events seem puny. We sell Socialist Worker inside, and the paper is sold weekly at the gates. We have been leafleting the factory at least once a week and have argued at stewards’ and section meetings for shop stewards’ bulletins and rank-and-file involvement at all times. Along with other militants, we sell the rank-and-file paper, Chrysler Worker.

It is not the case that our factory branch operates wonderfully well, nor that the organisation in the area operates with mechanical efficiency. What is true is that we are the only socialist organisation that does see the importance of working in the manner described above.

The policies eventually adopted by the Linwood workforce owed much to our involvement in the factory and to the work done by IS generally.

It is obviously dangerous to try to predict the outcome of the current struggle, but bearing in mind the fact that the most optimistic outcome advanced at any time is still within the context of a ‘phased withdrawal’ by Chrysler involving the loss of thousands of jobs, something along the following lines could well develop:–

The government will announce that the axe will fall heaviest on Coventry, with perhaps a run-down at Ryton. Linwood might suffer ‘only’ 1,500 redundancies – mainly because of the consequences for the Labour Party in Scotland, and partly because of the chance of the workforce putting up a real fight.

The leadership at Linwood could then argue that since little fight had taken place at Ryton, they could not substitute themselves for the Ryton workers and oppose what was happening there. In reality, in a situation of. ‘phased withdrawal’ the closure of any plant could only hasten the closure of every plant.

The convenors might maintain a verbal opposition to redundancies at Linwood, voluntary or otherwise, but would do little or nothing to prevent workers leaving, unless forced to by pressure from below.

A factory occupation at Linwood demanding nationalisation linked to the working-class movement in the area is what we are aiming for. That is a prospect that frightens riot only the employers, but also sections of the trade union movement.

We demand that the government guarantee every job. Whether we build motor cars, or something more socially useful like agricultural equipment for the hundreds of millions of starving people in the world, safe cars for the disabled, ambulances or fire engines, depends on our willingness to fight in order to force the government to pay heed.

It is perhaps appropriate to end as the IS factory bulletin did on 2 December:

‘The Linwood workers have shown time after time that they’ll respond when ,a clear lead is given. We’re confident that if the rank-and-file are treated as active participants in the struggle, and not as a stage army, then we can successfully force the government to guarantee every job.’

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 9.2.2008