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Archive - Thursday, 16 June 2011
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Recalling turbulent times
It seems just about everyone has had their say about the madness, sometimes referred to as industrial relations, that held sway at the Cowley car plant through the 1960s and 1970s.
Experienced: David Buckle
Academics, journalists and industrialists have all written in depth about just what happened in Cowley during those years — but never before a full-time union official caught up in the thick of the political and industrial struggles that both fascinated and appalled the nation over two decades.
Well, so reckons David Buckle, a man with 38 years’ experience as a union official, who has just written his version of events in Turbulent Times in the Car Industry.
Even his most bitter enemies, and they were once almost as numerous as strike days, cannot deny that both as a line worker at the Pressed Steel plant and later as a senior union negotiator for both major plants at Cowley (along with related companies like MG, Morris Radiators and Unipart) he was right at the centre of events affecting Cowley as well as the national economy.
“In one year I had to deal with 500 strikes and 1,000 pay claims from many parts of the plant,” Mr Buckle recalls. “Some strikes lasted for no more than ten minutes; others could be anything up to three weeks. None was ever made official by our union.”
One exchange, remembered in his book, provides a flavour of the mood back then.
“I once asked a militant shop steward why he and others constantly made pay demands which could not be met and only frustrated our members. He replied, ‘because the workers must go down to one defeat after another until they learn to become revolutionaries’.
“Attending meetings of shop stewards was often a nightmare. The militant stewards always made sure they were at the front and they constantly heckled me with the aim of breaking up the meeting. On one occasion, chairs were thrown at the platform to drive me off.”
As BMW prepares to plough £500m into Mini, you cannot help but wonder what today’s German managers would make of this journey into Cowley’s past.
Mr Buckle believes the blame for all those years of misery and strife should be put down to poor management back then as well as militant shop stewards.
“The management and most media blamed the working people for the bad industrial relations,” he argues. “But a more modern and caring management could and should have prevented many of the bad conditions of work. The turbulence in the industry was due to the management’s failure to invest sufficiently in the plant and equipment, which allowed politically-motivated people, both in management and the shop floor, to have so much influence and power over hard-working employees.
“The management, who denied their employees their rights, and shop stewards, who used their members for political purposes to suit their own ends, have a considerable share of the blame for what happened in the second half of the 20th century to the Cowley car industry.
“Decent, hard-working people did not deserve either bad management or politically-motivated extremists as shop stewards. What the employees wanted was fair pay for a fair day’s work, job security, fair treatment, decent working conditions and respect.”
There are harsh words in the book for celebrated figures like Alan Thornett, the deputy senior steward who became known as ‘The Mole’, as well as Sir Michael Edwards, whose style of management is said to have created “a climate of fear”.
Mr Buckle, who lives with his wife Beryl in Radley, says at the age of 86 he was tempted to risk opening old wounds after giving a talk on the turbulent times at Cowley to the history society in his village.
“I was encouraged to put my experiences into writing by the chairman, Christine Wootton. Industrial relations is not a big subject today. But I think it will be in the future with all the problems arising from cuts, especially in public services.
“Some of the issues raised in the seventies and eighties are going to raise their heads again.”
Mr Buckle, who retired in 1988, came to Oxfordshire to work at an airbase at Culham, soon after being demobbed from the Royal Marines in 1946. It so happened that his wife’s uncle was a shop steward for the transport drivers on the base and he was recruited into the Transport and General Workers Union, soon getting himself elected to represent the manual employees.
Struggling to manage on £5 7s a week, he moved to the Pressed Steel car body factory.
“My first shock was the condition of the factory,” he remembers. “It was filthy, very dark and extremely noisy, with lead dust in the atmosphere, which glittered when the sun shone through the very high, filthy windows.
“Due to smoke from gas and arc-welding guns it was very difficult to see much beyond 50 yards. All the men looked very pale. To me it was Dante’s Inferno. Everyone living in Cowley knew who the car workers were because of their pale complexions.”
In the summer, windows had to be removed to cool the plant down.
“If a summer storm arrived, rain poured down on to the electrical equipment, which gave us a nice firework display.”
Mr Buckle, who went on to become a long-serving member of Oxfordshire County Council and Radley Parish Council, spent 14 years as a line worker at pressed steel.
In 1964, he took over from Jack Thomas as Oxfordshire district secretary of the TGWU, having been interviewed by the union giant Jack Jones for the job.
He entered a very different world.
His version of events is that a small group of Trotskyites, having obtained jobs in Morris Motors, had been lying low for some time awaiting the chance to be elected as shop stewards in the aftermath of the long struggle for union recognition.
But it was a boom in the car industry, he argues that really gave them their chance.
“The company was terrified of any stoppage due to strikes. This was the opportunity for extreme left-wing members in Morris Motors to be even more effective in their demands.
“Because the management often conceded without any thought for the consequences, militant trade unionism was demonstrating that this was the way to beat their employers.
“As a result Morris Motors throughout the 1960s, seventies and eighties was beset with industrial disputes, which became part of the plant’s culture.”
By the time the assembly plant closed in 1992, with all car production concentrated in the Cowley body plant, the workforce had been reduced to 4,500 compared with 14,000 in the 1960s and 1970s. But at his talks, when he is inevitably asked about his opinion on BMW, he could hardly be more upbeat.
“They have substantially increased investment to make it the plant we should have had from the 1950s to 1980s.
“Employees now enjoy much safer working conditions in a factory which is cleaner, safer and quieter than in the old days. No longer is there lead in the atmosphere causing lead poisoning, nor extremely high levels of noise causing many employees to suffer from tinnitus. Power-assisted tools are banned. It is much brighter compared to the appalling conditions of the past.”
- Turbulent Times in the Car Industry costs £4.99 plus postage. For a copy call Mr Buckle on 01235 529949 or write to 1 Stonehouse Crescent, Radley, OX14 3AG.