HC Deb 06 December 1967 vol 755 cc1625-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

12.25 a.m.

Mr. Arnold Gregory (Stockport, North)

The case of Roberts-Arundel brings to the minds of all hon. Members something more than an industrial dispute at a small firm in my constituency. It throws up a king-sized issue which, for over 12 months, has concerned hon. Members representing constituencies in the greater Manchester area and the surrounding district—an advanced industrial area that is important to the economy. The dispute concerns basic trade union principles and goes to the foundations of labour relations, or, in this case, the painful lack of them.

For Stockport, it has been a long and distressing struggle for 12 long, weary months. In July, 1966 the long established firm of Arundel-Coulthard was taken over by the Roberts Company, of Sanford, South Carolina, U.S.A., and the firm was renamed Roberts-Arundel. Events followed quickly. In November of that year the first women workers were engaged, and some of the men were made redundant. On 28th November more women workers were employed and the factory downed tools. The national agreement was broken by the firm, and between 5th and 9th December notices were issued. The strike was declared official, arid the firm withdrew from the Engineering Employers' Association. One hundred and forty men came out on strike and the firm said that they had been sacked.

The developments since then are well known to most hon. Members. There has been a continuous daily picket of the factory, and there have been clashes between pickets and workers and between pickets and police. People have been bruised and injured, and there has been a most distasteful series of incidents in the town. On 22nd February, over 1,000 workers marched through the town, and there was a similar demonstration on 21st March and another to celebrate May Day. In September, we had a protest week. Sometimes the demonstrations brought about serious disturbances. People were hurt and there was a number of arrests. Great trouble and concern followed the incidents. For the town and the country Roberts-Arundel has become an ugly symbol.

What about the efforts to bring the struggle to an end? There are many, but the result is nil. The American head of the firm, Robert E. Pomeranz, who is based in Sanford, North Carolina, saw my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour in April, February, March, and May. The Mayor of Stockport and representatives of the firm met, but after long discussions in which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. Orbach) took a leading part these efforts proved to be in vain and the time spent was wasted. In September, Mr. Pomeranz saw my right hon. Friend again. Then we had the York meeting, and to cap it all we saw the turn-down of what became known as the Barnard plan.

It has been a long drawn out, weary and unproductive business. We have had the usual knock-about Communist plot charges. There was also the charge that the local Labour Party was up to its neck in the business, and, according to a report in The Times of 25th February, so were the Tories. They stated clearly their political objectives. According to the report, two leading Tory spokesmen had sent a letter to the newspapers saying: If the Labour-dominated council are not capable of defending their law-abiding citizens against trade union terrorism from outside, then those citizens will make their own judgment in the forthcoming municipal elections. Feelings run high, but it might be worth adding that what was lost in bad labour relations and on the industrial side could not be turned to anybody's political gain. We in Stockport were the losers all round.

What about the industrial side? The debating activity was intense here. Where did the fault lie? Mr. John Tochier, district secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, was categoric. He said: It is a fundamental principle involved. It is the whole basis of the worker's right to participate in collective bargaining with his or her employer to reach agreement. I am determined to see that the firm does not get away with this. Mr. Pomeranz has talked of the purchasing cost of Roberts-Arundel. He says that it cost him £500,000 and a further investment of £500,000 also for modernising, painting the factory, positioning machinery, and so on. He said: We have had 13 wildcat strikes in 15 months and Stockport's union leaders seemed determined to rule or ruin. Mr. Pomeranz repeated that in a letter to The Guardian on 29th November. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South replied to it the following day, when he pointed out: In an attempt at mediation, I pressed the management to give particulars of these strikes'. As their personnel manager replied to my several questions, it transpired that a stoppage of an hour or two had occurred because (1) there was no drinking water on the premises, (2) the toilets were dirty and (3) on a bitterly cold day there was no heating. He went on to say that the other "wildcat strikes" were occasioned by a similar lack of accepted facilities, and he said that the personnel manager explained that following the stoppages, these things had been put right. It is clear that had there been normal trade union and employment practices, this kind of thing would not have occurred.

The question which follows upon all this is whether Stockport is a difficult labour relations town. We have the word of Mr. Charles Barnard, Managing Director of Mirrlees National Ltd., of Stockport, and chairman of the local branch of the Engineering Employers' Association, who spoke of the labour relations as follows: I suppose they are as good as anywhere in the country. The Disputes Committee of the main unions concerned is known to be quite a tough one, but through the years, I think, we have found ways to live with it and them and we are getting less trouble today, with this exception, than we had a few years ago. Another opinion was given in the B.B.C. sound programme on a Roberts- Arundel survey on 17th September. Mr. Mayhew Saunders, an expert on American production techniques and their application in this country, said that he did not think the firm was a typical case to illustrate the role of United States companies who want to change industrial practices here. He pointed out that he thought that Stockport was a difficult town for labour relations, and he said: They are fairly good, but I know that a lot of this comparative quiet is bought at not insisting on what I would regard as perfectly proper improvements in practice. The situation has, however, concerned even the United States Senate and Congress. A sub-committee's report of both Houses, "Future of U.S. Foreign Trade Policy", states: It would be wise for private U.S. corporations to recognise the valid concerns of the host countries and act accordingly in regard to employment practices. Those are home thoughts that are exported. They should be taken very seriously by companies which come here to practise rather than follow the example of Roberts-Arundel. That is surely the lesson to be learned from all this. We can strongly doubt whether the United States can teach us any instant methods, even in productivity.

We might well ask what has been the sum total in cost to Stockport. There have been arrests. There have been demonstrations. There have been clashes between pickets and the police. Men and their families have lived on strike pay for 12 months. The cost to industry is also heavy. I understand that, at the 12 firms in Stockport affected, there have been 10 major walk-outs of four hours each, the total number of workers each time being about 4,000. This means that 160,000 hours have been lost to these firms.

If we take this to mean that half at least of the men are direct production workers, the total is between 80,000 and 100,000 lost hours at £5 per hour per head/hour production work, which means £400,000 to £500,000 lost to these firms in production, three-quarters of it in exports. The global estimate is 1¼ million man hours lost in the town at a cost of £2 million to £2¼ million in production for the town. No wonder a leading industrialist commented bitterly that he did not think that Mr. Pomeranz wanted a settlement. Certainly, he has realised a closure. That is what we face today.

Can we let the situation go on and disrupt the life of the town further? These direct questions must be put to Pomeranz and to Roberts-Arundel. We know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has been battling on with Pomeranz. We know that today there has been announced a fixed date for the closure in mid-January but, knowing Pomeranz, how can hon. Members and our trade union friends take his word for this and expect fair play between now and mid-January when his will will be carried through?

The Guardian, in its leading article on 16th November, said: If a trade union were to behave in this way—ignoring established procedures, spurning offers of reconciliation, rejecting agreements—there would be no shortage of critics, not least in the present Government, to denounce it. It would be called irresponsible, trouble making, wicked. Perhaps the time has come for the Government to speak out on the Roberts-Arundel issue. There is no doubt that the time has come to settle. … We have taken as much of this … as we can stomach. Journalists too have been interested. Mr. E. K. Brunert, in the Stockport Express, two weeks ago, said that he was asked by a friend what he would write about in his paper when there were no more dispatches from the battlefront at Chestergate. He replied that, for the sake of Stockport and its people, he would like nothing better.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend that there is the greatest possible case for holding a full-scale inquiry even at this juncture into the affair to see how we can prevent the Pomeranz doctrine ever being applied again in the country and I hope that he will consider appropriate legislation to go with it if need be. No one would wish the grim, painful experience of Stockport on any other firm or town in the country. In Stockport, we have had enough.

12.38 a.m.

Mr. Maurice Orbach (Stockport, South)

Tonight, I believe, we close a sad and sorry story of industrial relations if the statement made by Robert Pomeranz is his moment of truth. But the recurring theme in this dispute is that the chairman of this company time and again has shown that he is a stranger to truth. He has lied throughout and may, in fact, be lying tonight.

This morning I was telephoned by a national newspaper informing me that its correspondents had been in touch with Mr. Pomeranz at Stockport when he arrived there this morning and that, when questioned by reporters, he had replied, "I saw the two Members of Parliament for Stockport this morning and they will tell you what I have to say". He saw neither my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Gregory) nor myself. Nor did he communicate with our homes, the House, or any of the places which we might frequent.

The two hon. Members for Stockport wish to make it quite clear that at no time throughout this bitter dispute, contrary to what the B.B.C. broadcast tonight, have they attacked the foreign ownership of this company.

I think that I can speak for my hon. Friend when I say that both of us are concerned that foreign investment should not be spurned, but should be welcomed, provided that it meets certain conditions: where it does not lead to foreign domination of any particular sector of British industry; where it introduces new fields of employment; where it helps to establish modern technology; where the management is geared to the productive capacity of its people, machinery and market potential; and, as stated, by the President of the Board of Trade, where firms which want to open businesses in this country are well aware of the traditions and requirements which will be theirs if they do so.

This applies nationally as well as to Stockport. A militant trade union town, proud of its craftsmanship, its exports and its industrial relations, has been spurned by this gentleman. Far from meeting any of the requirements, Mr. Pomeranz has done exactly the opposite. He acts like a little führer in a totalitarian State. He treats his workers as chattels. He has been lying to the Press and public, to his executives and, no doubt, to his investors.

I tried on three occasions to mediate in this dispute. I had the opportunity to meet his managing director, and the House may be interested to know that during the 12 months which have gone by three individuals, all of whom have been repudiated by him, have had to go back on undertakings which they gave to me as mediator. He has lied even to his blacklegs. He gave them an undertaking that in no circumstances would they be dismissed during the course of his ownership of the factory.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary wishes to intervene in the debate to which he has been asked to reply.

12.44 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

I am sorry to exercise that privilege, especially during a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. Orbach), because I know the honourable part which he has played in the dispute up to now. But the House will understand that I am in the position of having an obligation to put on record the Government's attitude to this complicated dispute, and with only 11 minutes left to me I should begin to do that at once.

The dispute began over the operation by women of machines which had been previously operated by men in Stockport, but always operated by women in nearby Preston. The union was informed of a plan to put women on these machines on 17th November, 1966. It immediately announced its disagreement and referred the dispute and the disagreement to its District Committee.

As a result of this reference, the district secretary asked for a meeting which it was agreed should be held on 23rd November. Two days before that meeting took place women were admitted to the firm and employed on the machines in dispute. The union claims that this constituted a breach under Section II, (b) of the Procedure Agreement, but this is and was denied by the company which went further and on the morning of 28th November engaged two more women to do the same job. Again, they were according to the union's contention, in breach of the agreement.

As a result of that action the union withdrew its labour and the company immediately offered to employ no more women while discussions were carried on. But by that time it was the view of the union that such an assurance was unacceptable. Later, the union changed its mind and said that it would accept such an assurance, only to discover that the company, as a result of the earlier refusal, had withdrawn the offer. A return to the status quo until discussions were completed was consequently impossible. So the friction developed, the tension mounted, and the inevitable escalation resulted in the strike being declared official.

The declaration of the official strike followed the events of 3rd December, 1966. On that date 140 strikers were dismissed. On 16th December, Roberts-Arundel resigned from the Engineering Employers Association. It was a necessary step for it to take because it had publicly notified its intention of ignoring the series of national agreements to which that body is party. It withdrew recognition from the union and subsequently employed non-union labour, some of it after an advertisement in local newspapers which specifically asked for recruitment of non-union labour. Indeed, it advertised for people who wished to work. sin a free atmosphere, not the restrictive environment of a union shop. What did happen, or might have happened, up to the date of 3rd December, is open to dispute. Whether the procedure was ignored, or flouted, is a matter for the industry to decide. But the events between 3rd December and 16th December are incapable of more than one interpretation. Certainly, provocative steps were taken by the company—possibly intentionally provocative. They were certain to cause conflict in the industry of the bitterest sort, and were doomed to result in a loss of company profits and in great hardship to the company's employees.

Many of my hon. Friends will think that the actions of the company in those days were at least reprehensible. I am sure that the House and the nation will agree that the firm's actions were foolhardy and were bound to result in the sort of frictions, difficulties and pain which have characterised this unhappy company during the last twelve months.

After that time there were constant attempts to conciliate by my own Ministry regional industrial relations officer, by the Mayor of Stockport and by both hon. Members representing that town. One notable example was the meeting organised under the Chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South.

There were numerous interventions by my right hon. Friend, who had seen either the president of the company or the company's British representatives and others on 11 occasions. On one occasion the meeting arranged by the Regional Industrial Relations Officer ended in confusion, with the representative sent to negotiate on behalf of the company saying that he was not empowered to negotiate and was there to talk to my right hon. Friend but neither to make any promises nor to arrive at any decision.

The situation continued until 14th September of this year. That is the date that the company now claims that it was prepared to abide by the customs of the country and operate normal procedures as understood in the engineering industry. At that time, as a result of the operations of a person who has been called by some people an honest broker, a scheme of re-engagement was agreed whereby 45 of the men on strike would be either immediately re-engaged or re-engaged during the next 10 working days. The agreement broke down because no possible area of compromise was found for the re-engagement of the remaining 41 striking men.

Shortly afterwards Mr. Pomeranz himself offered a scheme but that appeared to the union to be inferior to that offered on 14th September. The union therefore rejected it. Finally, there was a scheme promoted by Mr. Barnard, of the Manchester Engineering Employers' Association, who personally, and as a representative of his Association, deserves the congratulations of the House and of my hon. Friends for what he tried to do to resolve this dispute. He suggested at the time that some of the striking men should be re-employed by Roberts-Arundel and others loaned to Stockport employers until they could be taken back into the firm.

That idea was canvassed by him and reinforced on 23rd November, at a meeting which my right hon. Friend had in the Ministry in which Mr. Scanlon of the A.E.U. and Mr. Jukes, of the Engineering Employers' Association, took part. That is how the position stood. It was hoped until last night that the Barnard agreement could be implemented. My hon. Friend said quite rightly that last night what might be the final meeting in this unhappy story took place—a meeting between Mr. Pomeranz, my right hon. Friend, myself, officers of my Department, associates of Mr. Pomeranz and eventually Mr. Scanlon, of the A.E.U. and Mr. Jukes, of the Engineering Employers' Association.

As a result of that meeting, Mr. Pomeranz issued a statement at approximately 4.45 p.m. today. A superficial reading of that statement might lead the House and the country to believe that that meeting began in the hope that Roberts-Arundel could be resuscitated, that it could operate at full strength and that a period of industrial animosity would come to an end as a result of that full-strength working. Equally, a superficial reading of it might lead the country to believe that those hopes foundered only because of the inability of the trade unions to agree to schemes put forward by the company.

I have to tell the House that, in fact, at the beginning of the meeting, before the President of the A.E.U. was present, it was made very clear to my right hon. Friend and myself that Mr. Pomeranz had no hope of reorganising the firm as a manufacturing unit and that all he aspired to do was to operate a small company committed to servicing their appliances. This small company would not operate on a scale which would enable the re-employment of the men now on strike, or, indeed, to keep in employment those Stockport citizens who had been recruited since the strike began. That was Mr. Pomeranz's original position and that was his position when the meeting came to an end.

We are, therefore, left in a universally sad situation. The striking members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union have virtually no area in which to negotiate because the firm they left perhaps a year ago could no longer provide them with employment. We are left in a situation in which over 100 non-union workers who were recruited by the firm and promised protection by the firm now find that they have to face the wrath of their unionised colleagues without the protection of the firm which encouraged them to take up anti-union attitudes in the first place.

We also find that the company has created in the minds of many people in this country fears about the general attitude of American companies, and of American capital when it comes to Great Britain. I want to rectify some of that impression by reminding hon. Members that some of the best industrial relations in this country are to be found in companies which are owned by American capital and managed by American citizens. In my view, Roberts-Arundel is a unique, or nearly unique, example of what happens when foreign capital comes here, and no conclusion about general American industrial relations should be drawn from their very unhappy experience.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)


Mr. Hattersley

I have two more points to make before I can permit my hon. Friend to intervene.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North asked for a general inquiry. My right hon. Friend will consider whether even now that is the appropriate action to take. Certainly he will consider it, even if there is no hope of employment for the men, if some moral satisfaction can be obtained from investigating how the position arose.

One other point ought to be remembered. We have been asked for legislation to make sure that this sort of situation does not occur again. Clearly, that must be considered in the light of the report of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations. But many people throughout the country who urge trade union legislation must understand that if it comes about there are companies which will be required to operate in a more responsible, more respectable and more honourable way than this company has operated in the past. If nothing else comes out of this sad and squalid episode, I hope that we shall at least learn, through this example of destructive industrial relations, something on which all firms can base their improved practices. The knowledge that any company which tries to behave in an arbitrary, unrealistic and destructive way will—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes to One o'clock.