This article—the first of two on the motor industry—discusses trade union structure and organisation, the tangled pattern of wages, the role of the shop steward, the problem of automation, and the political attitudes of motor workers in the Midlands. Much of the factual industrial and trade union material came from discussion with Mr. J. L. Jones, Midlands Regional Secretary, Transport and General Workers’ Union. We should like to express our thanks to him, and to the many other trade union officials, shop stewards and car workers, who willingly co-operated in their limited spare time. None of them is responsible for the article or the opinions expressed. In the second article, Duncan MacBeth will deal with the importance of the motor industry to our economy, and the problems which arise from the unplanned use of the motor car.
from the evidence available to the general newspaper reader, the behaviour of the workers in the motor car industry may be reckoned a disturbing puzzle. Employed in making a commodity which has itself become one of the most valued status symbols at home and currency earners abroad, their own high earnings, especially in the West Midlands’ centres, are a legend even in “prosperity” Britain. Indeed their wealth seems only to be exceeded by their discontent. No news bulletin nowadays seems complete without a report of some motor workers’ strike, often “unofficial”, apparently on the most trivial pretext, usually concerned with wages, and led by shop stewards whose authority is seemingly as unquestioned as their disregard for the unemployment of innocent thousands is vicious. Yet this unsleeping militancy offers little consolation to the radical. In the 1959 General Election the West Midlands area, precisely the area in which the most crowded centres of the motor industry and its dependent industries are situated, registered a swing away from Labour notable even for that election. In Birmingham the loss of three Labour seats restored the pre-1945 Tory preponderance; even Coventry, the proverbial “boom town” of the car industry and widely regarded as the showpiece of municipal Socialism, at last found a seat for a Tory. Industrial militancy, scandalous though it is to journalists, evidently does not extend to politics. Seen from a distance the attitude of the motor worker—prosperous, restless, socially apathetic—might almost be taken for a symbol of the general attitude of affluent British society. It is worthwhile taking a closer look at the experience behind the attitude.
Something needs to be said first of all about the organisation of the industry itself, for one of the initial difficulties encountered, by trade union organisers and strike leaders among others, is in simply enumerating “Motor Car Workers” and in deciding where the boundaries of the industry are to be drawn. Apart from final vehicle manufacturers and the producers of components for direct inclusion in the end product (electrical equipment, tyres, engine parts, etc.—some of which in themselves support great and thriving firms) motor cars are nourished by many outside industries (steel, rubber, glass, leather, textiles, etc.) which are not counted as part of the trade, but which are, in some cases, wholly dependent on it for their economic existence. These ramifications must be mentioned again, for they spread the economic consequences of the motor industry far and wide, and trade union action must take account of them. All that need be said at present is that this link with outside industries exists alongside a great deal of “vertical” integration and amalgamation which, though not taken as far as in any single American firm, has been undertaken by nearly all the major British manufacturers since the war. This development, together with increasing automation has, I shall suggest, helps to multiply the unemployment caused by any given dispute. If, however, attention is centred on final car manufacture and assembly, it is obvious that, despite the presence of a substantial number of important high class car producers (Jaguar, Daimler, Rover, Rolls, etc.), the industry is now mainly concentrated in the five leading mass production firms: (British Motor Corporation—i.e. Austin-Morris—Ford, Vauxhall, Rootes, Standard-Triumph). Throughout this century the economic movement of an industry which began with many highly-skilled craftsman-producers has been towards this select company of giants, using the most advanced mass-production technology, each striving by concentration to render itself industrially self-sufficient between them controlling over 90 per cent of total, national motor car output.
It is against the background of this pattern of industrial organisation that the majority of motor car workers have had to frame their own measures, and their most characteristic problems and conflicts can only be explained in the light of it.
For a movement which displays such redoubtable energy, trade unionism in the motor industry has a surprisingly short history. An official estimate of present membership is that in most important plants it is little less than 100 per cent and nowhere falls below 80 per cent, with the possible exception of Vauxhall. This membership is distributed among many different unions, but the bulk of the ‘Shop Floor’ operatives, skilled and otherwise, is organised by the Amalgamated
As late as 1936, G. D. H. Cole in his Condition of Britain described the motor industry as one of the most weakly-organised sectors of British trades unionism and J. L. Jones speaks of the “staggering lack of organisation” when he first went to Coventry in the pre-war years. This state of affairs, due largely to the comparatively recent arrival on the industrial scene of the motor car plants, was naturally encouraged by the employers, whose policies varied from the anti-union ‘paternalism’ of the Morris companies to the outright resistance of Fords. With little, in those years, to rely on but themselves, the motor workers began to force their organisations into the plants, and in the most up-to-date of 20th century industries, J. L. Jones and his colleagues re-enacted a battle for organisation that had been fought many times over by earlier generations. Management rarely granted official recognition until its hand was forced by some degree of existing organisation in the plant. To achieve this at a time when to become a trade unionist—much more to become a Shop Steward and recruit others as trade unionists—was not uncommonly to invite the sack, involved persistent picketline and other pressure upon the numerous nonmembers and sometimes even concealment of membership until enough strength had gathered. Every successful penetration was a breach in the stand of the more recalcitrant managements upon whom the pressure of concessions elsewhere could be brought to bear; and as they gained ground plant by plant the motor workers learned the value, and the habit of shop floor action under shop floor leadership. Even so it needed wartime circumstances to bring some of the most important advances. The demand for munitions (to which the whole industry was diverted), the Essential Works Order and especially its associated Appeals Tribunals curbed employers’ power of dismissal and put an end in particular to the previous wholesale firing of shop stewards.