February 2017

My name is Mollie; I am the Archive Assistant Trainee. This month I have chosen to talk about the British Leyland industrial disputes of the 1970s and 1980s. I have always been interested in economic history and how this has affected the social order – specifically workers’ rights and rebellions. Therefore trade unionism in factories is a topic that greatly interests me and one about which the BMIHT Archive holds a wealth of information.

It wasn’t until we were contacted by a South Korean television crew about viewing some material on this topic that I realised the full extent of the issue. During the search for material I came across a set of twelve boxes labelled as ‘dispute records and IR reviews’ ranging from 1974 to 1983. These boxes contained folders holding hundreds of sheets of paper documenting the day to day disputes that faced all of the British Leyland factories, as well as yearly and monthly ‘Industrial Relations’ (IR) reviews. The amount of unrest shown by these documents is staggering. With all this choice it was difficult to actually pick a record to showcase but I have finally settled on an Industrial Relations Review labelled 'analysis of disputes: Oct. 1974 to Sept 1975'.

Why This Document?

Although it may not be the most glamourous document, the four page Industrial Relations Review I have selected provides a great overview of the unrest through an entire year of British Leyland production. It is also the first report in the sequence and therefore illustrates the beginning of the end for the company. In 1975, at the end of the period this report covers, the Labour government would step in by taking a majority shareholding in order to prevent the collapse of one of Britain’s biggest employers.

British Leyland was created six years earlier in 1968 from a large scale merger between the Leyland Motor Corporation and British Motor Holdings (which in turn had been created through mergers of many of the floundering motor companies that remained in the UK). This meant that British Leyland consequently held interests in around forty factories from Glasgow to Basingstoke, with the majority based in the West Midlands. One of the main issues with having such a large number of factories over such a large area is the difficulty of exerting overall control – lack of control can often lead to unrest.

Despite being created from two seemingly prosperous companies, British Leyland soon ran into serious trouble. The company found it hard to streamline the workforce in the face of constant trade union objections to any changes, its products came to be synonymous with poor quality, while the merger meant that there were too many marques and models competing against each other. All these issues collided with consistent strike action all over the UK which halted production and caused the company to haemorrhage money.

The IR review gives us a summary of the headcount at the beginning of the period referred to, the number of man hours lost due to disputes, vehicle production lost to disputes, the nature of the principle disputes and other significant events.

There are some very useful statistics. From the start of the period in October 1974 to the end in September 1975 the headcount was reduced by 25,636. In this same period 8,591,143 man hours were lost within Leyland Cars, 1,744,120 man hours were lost in associated areas and 136,054 vehicles were lost from the production total.

There are multiple disputes in the main factories of Longbridge, Cowley and Canley as well as on other sites such as Castle Bromwich, Liverpool and Alford and Alder. They cover all manner of issues including movement of work to another area, reduction of overtime, job demarcation and pay. These are only the highlights of the monthly disputes, the in-depth day to day records show that recurring disputes on many sites were prolific.

There is also a column for ‘other significant events’ and this shows some of the ways in which the company tried to respond to the situation. Other pages during 1974/75 record the introduction of a 20 day (and later a 25 day) annual holiday and an hourly pension scheme, while this page of the summary notes that there are ‘voluntary redundancy programmes in operation’. The most telling entry into this column, however, is the phrase ‘Ryder Committee established’ against the date 3 December 1974. British Leyland, realising it was in big trouble, had approached the government of Harold Wilson for financial assistance. In response, the government commissioned Sir Don Ryder to investigate and write a report on the state of the company. The Ryder Report was published in 1975, paying great attention to the industrial issues, and found that organisational and structural changes needed to be made. It was on this basis that the government took the majority shareholding referred to above, effectively taking control of the struggling Corporation.

This document, as well as the hundreds of other daily reports, is an extremely important source of information as it is evidence of the decline of British Leyland from the ground level of its factories. It can show us specifically why people were striking, how much British Leyland lost in the way of production and how widespread the issues actually were. Unfortunately, the fact that this paperwork continues on to 1983 sadly illustrates that the government’s intervention did not provide a long-term solution to the problem.