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Cowley workers recalled in effort to isolate militants

24 April 1974

By R. W. Shakespeare Northern Industrial Correspondent

British Leyland has decided to attempt to isolate the militants at its strike-bound Cowley car plant at Oxford. It will re-open the assembly lines this morning and recall all the 12,500 workers who have been idle for the past fortnight. The management hopes that enough of the 150 internal transport drivers, whose two-week- old strike is at the centre of the latest Cowley troubles, will return to keep the plant going.

In a statement yesterday the management made clear that its move did not imply a change of attitude to one of the main issues with the drivers-the withdrawal of recognition from Mr Alan Thornett, a convener of the Transport and General Workers' Union. , British Leyland's decision, it says, was based on " massive representations " from employees, their families, and local opinion that workers should be, given the earliest opportunity to resume work. Labour disputes at the Cowley plant have cost more than £20m worth of production since the end of the power crisis and the three-day week.

Initially, when they walked out, the drivers were protesting about lay-off arrangements. Some had been sent home during the assembly Workers' stoppage. Then the management announced that it had ordered Mr Thornett back to work as a transport driver and withdrawn his credentials as a convener and chairman of the Cowley joint shop stewards' committee. The company accused him of failing to observe agreements with the unions and of " not using his best endeavours to keep men at work while disputes are discussed ".

The striking transport drivers are due to meet again tomorrow. There have been demonstrations by workers calling for an end to unofficial disruptions. Workers laid off have been losing an average of £45 a week in wages. The management has clearly judged that the moment has come to put shop-floor opinion to the test. It might be a costly exercise if it fails to get production started again, because workers recalled are covered by a guaranteed shift agreement.

If they report when asked to do so they must be paid for the full shift, even if they are sent home again. That would certainly be the situation if none of the striking transport drivers responds to the management's initiative. In its statement yesterday the management offered talks on the lay-off arrangements. However, it is unlikely to be willing to change the clause in all British Leyland's lay-off pay agreements, stipulating that these agreements are suspended if a stoppage arises from a dispute within the plant. To do so would mean that the corporation might end up paying heavily for its own strikes.

The management seems to be adamant in its attitude towards its recognition of Mr Thornett. The TGWU leadership may have to decide whether to intervene on his behalf. The union has long delegated the maximum authority to its shop stewards and conveners, and may well decide that in circumstances such as these it is obliged to give maximum support.

Women celebrate: The angry women of Oxford claimed a victory yesterday as British Leyland decided to recall its employees to work (Tim Jones writes). The decision came after two days of unprecedented scenes when the women and children marched to demand the dismissal of militants from the Cowley plant. As the women celebrated, two shop stewards called for an inquiry into union practices at the plant.

The two men, who watched the women march, said: "We are right behind them. The shame is that they are doing what we should have done a long time ago."

Both men re-fused to be identified because, they said, they feared reprisals from their workmates. One, who works in the paint shop, said: "The senior shop stewards who deal with management are elected by the other shop stewards, so the men have no say in the process at all and their views are not made clear. The situation has reached the point where the union, led by a small number, is telling all the men what to do, instead of the other way round. Too often what the shop stewards decide has nothing to do with the men on the shop-floor at all. Some kind of inquiry is long overdue."

About 200 wives marched with their' children and called for the dismissal of Mr Thornett and " other militants ". Mrs Carol Miller, who organized the demonstration, went to discuss the situation with management officials. She said: "If the men go in, then we will make sure they don't come out until they have done some work."

British Leyland Statement
“The company re-emphasises that there is absolutely no change in their decision to refuse facilities for Mr A. Thornett as a union representative. The decision to recall employees follows massive representations by employees , their families , and local opinion that the workforce should be given the earliest opportunity to resume work.

In the interest of the whole workforce of Cowley the company sincerely hope that transport drivers will respond to the company’s initiative so that normal work can take place and their own outstanding lay-off problem can be discussed .”

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