Workers' Liberty #62


Lions led by well paid donkeys

Rover, and especially Longbridge, workers have stared into the abyss many times before. But this time (March/April 2000) the crisis will be terminal - unless the workers and their organisations rise to the occasion and mount a militant campaign of industrial action and public protest to demand the renationalisation of the entire Rover Group.

By Frank Hughes

It can be done: in 1974 Rover's forerunner, British Leyland, went onto the rocks as a result of years of under-investment and over-generous payouts to shareholders. Tony Benn describes a meeting with union leaders shortly after Labour narrowly won the February 1974 election and formed a minority government: "170,000 people were involved and they thought that government intervention was inevitable." They were right: when the company went bust the Wilson government promptly nationalised it.

The difference between the response of the Wilson government of the mid-'70s and the Blair government of today can be explained in part by the global ascendency of neo-liberal economics and the corresponding transformation in official Labour politics. But abstract ideology is not the decisive factor (after all, Heath's Tory government nationalised Rolls Royce in 1971). The crucial factor is the strength of the organised working class as a whole and, in particular, within the threatened industries and workplaces.

In 1974 our class was strong and the Longbridge plant was probably the most powerfully organised (as well as the largest) workplace in Britain. The story of the Longbridge shop stewards' movement contains important lessons for a generation of trade unionists who have known little but the defeats and humiliations of the 1980s and '90s.

The shop stewards' movement

Longbridge had been gradually unionised after World War Two. Communist Party members played a central role, often risking their jobs in the process. The plant's first recognised union convenor, Dick Ethridge, was a CP member and in those days it seemed a natural step for active, militant trade unionists in the plant to join the Party. By the 1960s, the Party had a factory branch numbering around 50, and sales of the Daily Worker (later Morning Star) inside the plant (not on the gates) were in the hundreds. Management once tried to prevent sales by seizing a bundle of Workers and were forced to back down by immediate strike action.

The CP's influence went far beyond its formal membership and permeated the entire Joint Shop Stewards' Committee (JSSC), numbering around 500 stewards from the AEU, TGWU, Vehicle Builders, Electricians and the multitude of smaller white and blue collar manufacturing unions like the Sheet Metal Workers.

Apart from a few bastions of right-wing (or "apolitical") trade unionism, the shop stewards' movement at Longbridge was dominated by the ideas of the CP, even though the Party never had a majority of card carrying members on the JSSC.

When, in the late 1960s and early '70s, the old British Motor Corporation merged with Standard-Triumph and Leyland to form the giant British Leyland Motor Corporation, the influence of the Longbridge-based CP stewards spread throughout the whole combine. The only organised opposition was the much smaller number of Trotskyist and semi-Trotskyist stewards grouped around the Socialist Labour League in the Cowley Morris plant.

When the big battles against Edward Heath and the Industrial Relations Act erupted in the early '70s, the Austin JSSC banner would be there on all the demos, and an impressive Longbridge turn-out could be guaranteed for the CP-inspired Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU).

By now, Ethridge had retired and handed the convenor's job to his protégé, Derek Robinson. Ethridge is still remembered with affection by "old hands" and even people with no political sympathy for the CP concede that he was a "bloody good convenor", etc. Feelings about Robinson tend to be more mixed. The reason for this is that in Ethridge's day the CP's role was essentially to be the best and most conscientious union organisers at shop floor level - a task they combined with low-key Stalinist propaganda. When Robinson took over in the early '70s he was immediately faced with a series of crises that demanded political answers and exposed the underlying weaknesses of the CP's approach.

First, there was the whole question of the abolition of piece-work and the introduction of measured day work (MDW). The shop stewards' movement throughout the motor industry had been built around the piece-work system: stewards determined staffing levels, arranged work patterns, negotiated the "price for the job" and, ultimately, their effectiveness could be judged by the weekly wage packet.

Piece-work had many draw-backs from a socialist point of view, but it did at least ensure that stewards were directly accountable to their members and it gave the union a central role in determining the link between work and payment.

Robinson and the CP supported the introduction of MDW, dismissing the widespread shop-floor opposition as "short- sighted", "money-militancy" and (the ultimate put-down in those days) the work of "a bunch of Trots". What Robinson and co. didn't understand was the vital part piece-work played in keeping the stewards' movement in touch with the membership.

The bureaucratic arrogance and high-handed dismissal of shop-floor opinion was to characterise the CP's approach throughout the '70s and finally led to Robinson's downfall.

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that for a whole period of time (approximately between 1971 and 1978) it seemed that Robinson and the CP had been right - the workforce enjoyed the security that came with MDW whilst retaining the mutuality and shop-floor organisation that had been built up under piece-work. It seemed like the best of both worlds. Meanwhile, a much bigger crisis was looming: in 1974 the company faced bankruptcy.

The price of nationalisation

The Wilson government decided to nationalise the firm, but the price for the workforce was to be acceptance of the Ryder Report. In essence, Ryder recommended bailing out the company but insisted upon far-reaching "rationalisation" of work practices, with the aim of achieving speed-up of production and a "slimming down" of the workforce, though this last point was not spelt out in any detail.

Ryder recognised that these proposals stood little chance of success without the co-operation of the shop stewards' movement - and thus was born "participation". This was a comprehensive scheme to involve stewards, convenors and officials in joint committees with management at almost every level of the company from the shop floor to national level - except that Ryder made it clear that management would retain the final say and full decision-making power.

The shop floor overwhelmingly saw "participation" for what it was: a scheme designed to take stewards off the shop floor and draw them into an unequal "partnership" with management.

Robinson and the CP went for "participation" in a big way. As with Measured Day Work, shop-floor opposition was dismissed as an unprincipled alliance of "money-militants", right-wingers and the hated "Trots". Robinson (in an infamous pamphlet of 1975, written jointly with CP "theoretician" Jon Bloomfield) went so far as to describe participation as "a step towards workers' control".

Now that the company had been nationalised, so the Robinson/CP line went, the workforce had a duty to pull their weight and make a go of it. Robinson and the Longbridge Works Committee clamped down on unofficial strikes ("downers") and insisted that the disputes procedure was kept to at all times. "Continuous production" became the gospel propounded by the CP and by Leyland management alike.

When, in 1977, toolmakers throughout Leyland struck for a wage claim that in practice challenged phase two of the Labour government's Social Contract, Robinson and the CP joined forces with the AUEW Executive and the bosses in denouncing the toolmakers and breaking their strike.

The behaviour of Robinson and the CP was not the result of individual treachery or corruption (though that was often how it was regarded on the shop floor): it stemmed from a fundamentally bureaucratic political philosophy that equated nationalisation with socialism and regarded the spontaneous actions of the shop floor with suspicion and hostility. The result of all this for the shop stewards' movement throughout British Leyland (and in Longbridge especially) was nothing short of disastrous. Stewards were seen as little more than the bosses' policemen and an enormous gulf of distrust and cynicism opened up between the plant-based union organisation and the membership.

The rest of the story is tragic history: at the end of 1977 Labour appointed a nasty little union-basher called Michael Edwardes as chairman of British Leyland. Edwardes immediately announced a "plan" that would involve 40,000 redundancies and the closure of 13 plants. Shop meetings throughout Longbridge voted to oppose the "Edwardes plan" and yet at the official presentation of the plan the Longbridge senior stewards (along with most other BL union representatives) gave Edwardes a standing ovation!

Edwardes must have realised then (if he didn't already know) that the majority of senior stewards in British Leyland were severely out of touch with their members. He dispensed with the soft-soap Ryder approach, drove a coach and horses through participation and, finally, thanked Derek Robinson for his past co-operation by sacking him on a trumped-up charge in 1979.

The Robinson sacking (in which the Duffy/Boyd leadership of the AEU was complicit) was a traumatic blow to to union organisation in Longbridge and throughout Leyland. In fact, it was nearly a death blow: Leyland bosses gave serious consideration to the idea of withdrawing union recognition throughout the Group and creating a company union. Probably because they realised that they already had a de facto company union in the AEU, they pulled back. But they had won a decisive victory and wasted no time in following it up with a purge of militants and left- wingers at Longbridge and Cowley in the early 1980s. Union organisation in the company survived but, to this day, has not fully recovered.

But the virtual collapse of the British Leyland shop stewards' movement was not inevitable: it happened because the tremendous strength built up under piecework was frittered away in participation committees; because stewards lost their roots in the shop-floor and became petty bureaucrats; most of all, it happened because the dominant politics of the movement (i.e., the CP) had no answer to the financial crisis of the company beyond giving full support to everything that flowed from the Ryder Report. In the mid-'70s they had the strength and (for a while) the shop-floor support to fight for real workers' control: what they lacked was a coherent political perspective.

That's why the good militants of the '50s and '60s turned into the bosses' policemen of the '70s. It's a tragic story, but one we can learn from. The future depends on us learning from it.

From Honda to BMW (via BAe and "jobs for life")

The motor industry underwent major changes in the 1980s. Japanese companies like Honda, Nissan and Toyota began to challenge the traditional "Big Three" international market-leaders, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It became increasingly apparent that a relatively small national outfit like Leyland could not survive as an independent manufacturer of volume cars.

The Japanese companies circumvented European Community tariffs by establishing plants within Europe and the Thatcher government successfully wooed such "inward investment" by promoting Britain as a low-wage economy with a subservient workforce and generous incentives for regional development. Nissan led the way with its plant in Sunderland and soon Toyota, IBC Vehicles and Honda followed. But Honda already had close links with Leyland and these developed still further in the 80s. By 1986 Longbridge and Cowley ware manufacturing cars that were in reality Hondas with Austin or Rover badges. An new plant was built at Swindon as a joint venture between the two companies, supplying both with Honda-designed engines.

By now the British firm (renamed Austin Rover) was just about breaking even and, inevitably, the Tories looked to privatisation. Commercial logic pointed to Honda but, instead, in 1988 the Tories sold the firm for next to nothing (plus a cocktail of illegal bribes and sweeteners) to their friends British Aerospace.

The Honda link survived, however, and the process of "Japanisation" continued on the shop floor. In 1992 the BAe/Rover bosses put an unprecedented "Japanese style" deal to the unions. This involved complete flexibility among trades and mobility between jobs with "teams" under "team leaders" allocating all work (including maintenance and cleaning) amongst themselves. In exchange the company promised "jobs for life", apart from disciplinary cases. The unions, at national level, supported the deal and when shop stewards at Longbridge and Cowley voted to oppose it, the full force of the national union bureaucracy was brought to bear upon them to reverse their position. Despite this, the deal was only carried by a narrow margin in a ballot of the entire Rover workforce.

When BAe, in classic asset-stripper's mode, pulled out in 1994, Honda was again snubbed and Rover was sold into the apparently unlikely stewardship of BMW. However, the Bavarian company seemed determined to make a good fist of Rover, promising new management, deep pockets and commitment to the Rover "brand". They received nothing but co-operation from the unions at every level, from plant shop stewards to general secretaries. When the over-valued pound, an ill-planned and ageing model range and even more ageing plant brought about the first Rover-induced crisis at BMW in October 1998, the T&GWU's National Automotive Officer Tony Woodley effectively sold the Company's "Working Time" deal, involving total flexibility and "banked hours", to the plant stewards and the workforce. Woodley went so far as to utter words (quoted in the Birmingham Post) that appeared to threaten T&G members who opposed the deal with the sack.

The role of the T&G

Ever since the AEU leadership's treacherous role in the sacking of Derek Robinson, the T&G has ensured that it is the dominant union at Longbridge and within the national negotiating body (the "JNC") for the Rover Group as a whole. Robinson's successor as Convenor of Longbridge, Jack Adams, went on to become Deputy General Secretary of the T&G (he retired last year, replaced by Margaret Prosser) and Adams' successor as Longbridge Convenor, Dave Osborne, is now the T&G's Automotive Group Secretary (i.e., chief negotiator) for the Midlands. The T&G's National Automotive Group Secretary, Tony Woodley, heads the JNC. Therefore, the T&G has the responsibility of leadership in the present crisis at Rover.

Unfortunately, the internal politics of the T&G has so far prevented it from playing any sort of positive leadership role in the Rover crisis. General Secretary Bill Morris is determined to avoid embarrassing the Government by placing any demands whatsoever upon it; in particular, he believes that Gordon Brown is a secret friend of trade unionism, and has invited Brown to attend the next meeting of the union's General Executive Council (GEC).

The T&G "Broad Left" has, on paper, a big majority on the union's GEC. However, the "Broad Left" has been split into two rival factions by supporters of the Morning Star and the remnants of the old Communist Party. These sectarian idiots, led by one John Aitkin and one Pat Hicks, have refused all overtures for unity around the Rover crisis (or anything else) because, it seems, they believe that they are master strategists for the entire future of the "left" within the union and cannot afford to be diverted by "ultra-lefts" such as the Tribune supporters whom they have systematically removed from positions of influence within the union. They have also managed to entice the present leadership of the Longbridge Works Committee into their camp. A proposal for a meeting of all T&G "lefts", with a neutral chair, to discuss the Rover crisis was vetoed by Aitkin and Hicks.

Tony Woodley has lost all credibility amongst Rover workers. In late 1998 and early 1999 he acted as BMW's go-between with the workforce, even staging fake "attacks" upon BMW managers at "roadshows" to sell the "Working Time" deal. The salvation of Rover was supposed to be Woodley's personal triumph: instead, it is his downfall - especially at Cowley, where stewards have been told that he advised BMW to close the plant down! It is a disgrace that because of Bill Morris' illusions in New Labour and the Communist Party's sectarianism, the T&G is incapable of taking a lead at Rover. Into the vacuum has stepped professional "Brummie", Dr Carl Chinn (a Birmingham local radio "personality" and historian), who has called for a march in defence of Longbridge. Chinn's march has been backed by the local rag (the Evening Mail) and, belatedly, by the T&G and other unions. It has no clear political basis beyond "Save Longbridge", but in the absence of any positive demands from the trade union movement, no doubt local fascists (traditionally strong in the Longbridge/Northfield area of Birmingham) will give the event an anti- German/Europe flavour. It is essential that socialists intervene on this march to counter anti-German racism and to demand that New Labour re-nationalises Rover.

Blair and the "Third Way"

Blair and his Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers appear to be simply gobsmacked by this debacle. After a day of silence on the issue, Blair's spokesman Alistair Campbell told the press that his master was "very angry" with BMW and hinted that Blair wouldn't object to a boycott of BMW: though, of course (in true spin-doctor fashion) Mr Blair's mouthpiece denied having called for any such thing (Blair would simply "understand" anyone who chose to take action against BMW... cars?...dealers?...or what?...yet another example of Blair's irresponsible posturing. But never mind, it takes the pressure off New Labour).

Blair and Byers even had the gall to complain that BMW kept them in the dark (or actually lied to them): the complaint seems to be that, if the closures had been in Germany, BMW would have had to disclose their intentions in advance. It is true that under the EU Workers' Councils directive, employers have to disclose plans for redundancies in advance: that directive does not apply in Britain because... the Blair Government vetoed it!

It suits Blair to whip up anti-BMW (ie: anti-German) hysteria, because it takes the heat off his government and distracts from the obvious demand: nationalise Rover!

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