Nationally and internationally the motor industry has been catastrophically affected by the present recession.footnote There have been massive layoffs, plant closures and redundancies with little resistance by the workforce. In Britain in the late sixties and early seventies, the workers at British Leyland were considered very militant and their wages were well above the national average. But in the last three years they have seen their pay packet fall below average while their powerful shop stewards movement has suffered a series of major setbacks. In the same period 57,000 jobs have been lost without effective resistance and Michael Edwardes, chairman of British Leyland, has recently announced that 1,000 jobs per month will be axed for the next two years. Indeed, Edwardes has warned that if bl is not at least breaking even by 1983–84 he will simply shut it down. At the same time the Tories have been keen to advertise Edwardes’s style of management as the epitome of the proper way to take in hand the restructuring of British capitalism. Other leading uk employers like gkn, Allied Breweries and Lucas have already adopted similar strategies of using closures and mass redundancies to ‘thin out’ the workforce (especially the militants) while intimidating the survivors into quiescence and higher productivity.

The Edwardes Plan originated as a response to the failure of previous efforts at imposing job rationalization and speed-up upon the traditionally militant Leyland workforce. Back in 1970 bl management had abolished the piece-work system and introduced ‘Measured Day Work’ (mdw). Although long struggles at Cowley (Oxford) and Jaguar (Coventry) against its introduction were defeated, mdw did not yield the expected increases in productivity nor could it make any headway in weakening the shopfloor power of the shop stewards movement. On the contrary, in innumerable battles over the implementation of mdw the shop stewards strengthened their power. Thus in 1976 the company was forced to resort to new tactics. First the Ryder Report proposed the establishment of ‘Participation Committees’ with the aim of integrating the shop stewards movement. But when the shop stewards showed no sign of being easily integrated or of becoming watchdogs for the management, the carrot was replaced by the stick. At the end of 1977 Michael Edwardes was appointed chairman with a carte blanche to restructure the company and to break the power of the shop stewards. In his first few months he ordered 25,000 redundancies, abolished the Participation Committees and cleared the decks for an open confrontation with the shop stewards movement.

The results of this still unfolding and bitterly contested confrontation have included even more massive layoffs than ever considered possible, the closure of some of the most modern car works in Britain, and a major crisis for the shop stewards movement and trade unions. The notes that follow are based on first-hand observations of the struggle against the Edwardes Plan at bl Rover Solihull where I have been working since 1976. The long battle which led to the defeat of the Solihull workers (the plant is slated for final closure in 1982) is all the more indicative of the general struggle within bl, since it was Solihull which was chosen for study in the late sixties when the Department of Employment decided to investigate the high levels of disputes in the car industry.

In late spring 1979 Edwardes announced that 25,000 jobs were to be eliminated in bl. At the end of June rumours began to fly about the closure of Line 3 at Solihull. Then, before the summer holidays, the company informed the Castle Bromwich body plant about a cut in the production of Rover SD1 saloon cars. SD1 workers at the Solihull plant had still not been informed. However, the rumours were confirmed when the company arranged a meeting with the trade-union side for the Wednesday after the holidays.

At the meeting, the management told the SD1 committee (the plant’s six full-time stewards) that production was to be cut from 1,800 to 1,200 cars per week. Line 3 would be closed and some off-line operations finished. At the same time, the company had seen a golden opportunity to impose its unilateral manning levels on Lines 1 and 2 as well as in the paint shop. The total surplus labour force would be about 1,400 direct workers, of which 759 would be made redundant immediately, 400 transferred to the Canley plant, 120 to the Land Rover and Range Rover plant, and 165 in a surplus group which would ultimately be made redundant. Surprisingly, these proposals brought a sigh of relief on the shopfloor. At least people knew what was going to happen. Everyone started talking about the redundancies, and whether or not accepting the redundancy payment was a good idea.

On Thursday the SD1 shop stewards met and decided unanimously on recommendation from the committee to oppose the management’s proposals. They agreed on a five-point formula for job-sharing and a shorter working week with no loss of pay. In other words, a militant programme to fight the redundancies. After that the shop stewards convened their section meetings and reported back on the proceedings of their meeting. In most of the sections they were received coldly or even laughed at. From the talk on the tracks after these meetings, it soon became clear that many workers were keen to take redundancies.

A mass meeting was called for the following Tuesday morning and the SD1 committee distributed a leaflet containing the stewards’ recommendations. From Thursday onwards, there were groups of people all over the SD1 plant talking about redundancies. Although on most issues there are no organized campaigns, it is in these types of discussions that people harden their views. The track has stopped. A few mates have gathered to pass the time. Jim says, ‘I’m going to have one (i.e. redundancy). I’m fed up with this place and I’m knackered. It gets you down. The management is always on your back. This place has no future’ . . . . and so it goes on.