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Britain's erratic industry: productivity up and down

In Coventry, a 40 percent surge in worker output and quality has impressed the French giant Peugeot to the point that the Peugeot subsidiary Talbot is making one new-model sedan in Britain again.

In Plymouth, members of the local electricians' union have agreed to a highly unusual no-strike settlement with a Japanese electronic company: an advisory board on which workers have half the seats, and arbitration if the board disagrees on wages or conditions.

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But in London, Chris Brasher has become the latest fed-up British Rail commuter to abandon the strike-plagued railroad service. A former Olympic steeplechase champion, he now runs or bicycles between his home and his office. He fired off a despairing (and amusing) letter to the Sunday Observer complaining about crowded carriages and poor service.

This is the kind of two-steps-forward, one-step-back scene facing Britain as it moved into the new year still trying to solve the central issue of relations between management and labor.

Britain started 1982 with a go-slow by 500 train drivers on British Rail, and the threat of a full-scale strike by coal miners unless the government agreed to a wage settlement well above official guidelines.

Also ahead: a possible strike by workers in the steel industry over local productivity deals.

All three - rail, coal, and steel - are nationalized industries, inefficient by world standards, greatly overstaffed, and incurring huge losses every year.

About 11,000 of the private Ford Motor Company's 54,000 British workers defied union leaders and went on strike Jan. 5 despite a last-minute company offer on hours and pensions.

The latest flurry of labor trouble is new evidence of the dilemma the sagging performance of nationalized industries poses for conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

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She would dearly like to put them into private hands, or (more realistically) to cut their government funds to enforce economies and efficiencies.

But every time she tries to do that, cries go up that hundreds of thousands of workers would be laid off. At a time when British unemployment is about to move over the 3 million mark, and half a million of those who have left school are kept off the register by government training programs of controversial quality, such new job losses seem to her politically impossible.

The latest strike headlines indicate another deep-seated British issue: the class and social differences that separate management and workers into separate lunchrooms and washrooms, and separate and hostile outlooks.

''I never see my bosses,'' one truck driver told me as he returned from assignment to British Oxygen in Wales. ''The big bosses get reports from the next layer down. That layer gets theirs from the work's management, who get information from shop stewards, who might get it from me. I have pretty good conditions - boat, two cars - but there's no incentive. No one seems to care, to take a personal interest.''

The same story can be heard everywhere. Poor management is often blamed here, along with worker laziness, overstaffing, and union militancy, for contributing to Britain's long industrial decline in recent decades.

On a brighter note, the number of days lost to strikes last year was lower than for many recent years (a result of high unemployment and recession). Wage settlements have been averaging less than 10 percent.

In Ryton, Coventry, the local Talbot plant is back to a five-day workweek after 16 months on short time. The parent company, Peugeot, closed a big plant at Linwood, Renfrewshire, last spring, ending production of the Talbot Sunbeam car.

Now workers have improved efficiency so much - in part because of the recession and the concern over losing any job these days - that Peugeot agreed to allow Ryton to build the new Horizon car there. The first model has just rolled off the assembly line, 60 percent British in content.

Advance orders for (STR)12 million worth came from companies eager to buy British.

Peugeot could have built the new car at home in Poissy, France, where it has spare capacity.

The experiment in Plymouth is also due to a foreign company - Japan's Toshiba group. It aims to reduce class consciousness by throwing managers and workers together - not just on the new advisory council, but in the lunchroom as well.

Workers are agog at the Japanese managing director. He breaks British tradition by parking his car alongside shop-floor workers in the company lot, wearing the same blue work jacket as ordinary workers, and lining up for lunch with employees.

The Confederation of British Industry, an employers group, welcomes what it sees as a trend toward ending executive restaurants and washrooms.

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