An interview with Tony Mcqade, former shop steward.

Tony Mcqade worked at British Leyland’s site 2 car plant in Speke from the late 1960s until its closure in 1978, as well being a shop steward at the plant for a number of years, and is now a full time official with the TGWU.

Submitted by madashell on September 2, 2006

Why do you think that the motor industry was more prone to strike action than other areas of industry in the 1960s and 70s?
I think the best way of answering that is more prone to strike publicity, a car factory on strike over an issue looks better on the front page of a paper than a chocolate biscuit factory on strike, so that’s the first thing I’d like to say.

But in terms of the period when I was working there in the motor manufacturing industry which was the late 60s and through the 70s, I know it might seem like a strange connection, but rock and roll, which came through in the 50s with Elvis Presley and that and the teddy boys, liberated a lot of young men. You look at a football crowd in the late 40s everybody’s got a cloth cap on and a mac on, you look at somebody, it could be a 17 year old, it could be a 70 year old.

With the teddy boy era young people started to dress differently, sideburns, drainpipe trousers, Bryl cream in their hair, so that was a time when young people started having an identity that they’d never had before. Then obviously in this part of the world in the 60s with Merseybeat and everything, people got more confident, a bit more cocky, a bit more prepared to stand up for themselves. And with the car industry in Merseyside in the 60s and 70s we were known as the Detroit of England because we had Vauxhalls, we had Ford, we had British Leyland, we had Massey Ferguson, we had Dunlop, put all them together, you’re talking about in excess of 30,000 people.

That was a time also, amazingly when you look back now, when jobs were plentiful, there was 20,000 odd dockers then, Camel Laird had 10-15000 people working for them and you could almost walk out of one job and into another. So you had people, ex-sea farers, building workers, all sorts of industries, people from the docks going into car factories because they were well paid jobs. So you had building workers who were used to fighting, dockers who were used to fighting, those sorts of people, people from ship building industries coming into it, they were more inclined to stand up for their rights. What you also had was that they’d try and pay people from Merseyside lower rates than down south. The famous strike at Halewood was about parity with Dagenham. So I think that was part of it, and an awful lot of people in car factories were younger people, in their 20s and 30s, who were less inclined to listen to what the boss said, if they thought something was wrong they’d say.

But another thing was that there was a major misconception, which has never been corrected, when you talk about British Leyland, that up until the early 70s we didn’t make a complete car. We pressed it, we assembled it, we painted it and we trimmed it. And then, amazingly, it was sent down to Coventry to put the engine in, and very often, if something went wrong at Coventry, we’d get laid off at Speke. Now, if you weren’t at work, a lot of people assumed you were on strike, you weren’t, you were laid of, you were signing on, you were on the dole, so I would say more often than not, when we weren’t in work, it wasn’t through being on strike, it was because we’d been laid off, but there was a misconception that if you weren’t on work, you were on strike.

What do you think caused the closure of British Leyland’s Speke plant?
How long have you got? I think it closed because of politics, nothing to do with industrial unrest, as it was called at the time; we were no worse or no better in my opinion than other British Leyland plants. But obviously some rationalisation started in the motor industry, they needed to start closing plants and shedding workers, it always has been that when they look for an easy place to close, the obvious place is Liverpool, isn’t it? So I think that’s part of it, I think that’s the main thrust behind it.

To illustrate that point, when I worked at site 2, which closed in ‘78, site 1 was about a mile away, with another 3,000+ people in; that closed about 18 months to 2 years later. Around the time site 2 was closing, the new model that was coming through, code-named ‘the Lynx’, Northern Ireland’s problems were at their height, in terms of the various struggles that were going on in Northern Ireland. The Labour government, by way of trying to fix that problem, were looking at building a car plant in Northern Ireland, with the intention of creating thousands of well paid jobs, getting Catholics and Protestants to work together by fixing a problem. So they made deal with a gangster, a drug dealer named John De Lorean to build a car called the De Lorean car and he got loads, millions and millions off the Labour government to do that. The car, the De Lorean, was the Lynx that we were making, the only difference was that the doors opened up, instead of opening out, it was the exact same car. So there’s your politics for you, and De Lorean was eventually rumbled for being a drug dealer and a gangster.

The TR7 was known to have caused a number of problems due to poor design, how far do you think this contributed to the problems at Speke in the late 1970s?
It depends who you talk to regarding the problems with the TR7. I remember it as if it was yesterday, I’ve got a background in the motor industry, I was a panel beater and I got my City and Guilds in Vehicle Building and Design, you had butchers, bakers and candlestick makers working in car factories and we were on nights when the first mock up, which is a rough build of the body, came through the paint shop for tester systems.

Now, we built all the TRs at Speke, from the TR1 to the TR7, the vast majority of TR cars went to the States and the vast majority of those went to California, the sunshine state because they were all convertibles, for junior to come out of the house and throw his boots in the back of the car and go to school.

So the first mock up came through when we were on nights, it was about 3 in the morning, now, for anyone who’s ever worked nights for a sustained period of time, you’re at your lowest ebb at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. When that mock up came through, everyone looked at that and said “What are they doing? That won’t sell.” We’re butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, we’re not talking about professional designers, who are on mega bucks to design cars, so the ordinary guy on the shop floor at 3 o’clock in the morning saw the first mock up and instantly “that won’t sell” because it had a hard top. We knew that, how come the designers and the specialists didn’t know that? If they’d come to us with a sketch on the back of a cigarette packet and said “What do you think of the new TR7?” We’d say “How come it’s got a hard top on?” But no-one consulted us about that, did they? Because we don’t know, we’re the gobshites on the shop floor. Nobody consulted us or anything like that. So that was the first mistake that was made with that car and clearly it wasn’t selling, you look at all the TRs before the TR7, all convertibles, so why did they make the TR7 a hard top? So obviously, then it had problems selling. It was stuck on parks all round the county, gathering rust, waste, whatever. So that’s where the major problem came in with the TR7 and like with all these things, when there was a problem at the top, they’d try and see how they could off-load it onto the gobshites down below. The biggest problem with the TR7 was that it was a hard top and then later they tried to make a convertible out of it, but the damage was done.

And the second thing with the TR7, again nothing to do with the people who worked on the shop floor, was the pods where the headlights came up. It was a pressed steel body, so the pods being the mould that they were, they were a die cast model. They could get the paint procedures right, the paint kept coming off them. Well again, the people on the shop floor can only work with the materials they’re given. They’re given the paint to paint them and the primer to primer them, they get the materials. It was something to do with the paint and/or the die cast.

And the third thing that came out then was Ralph Nader, known now for being a prominent Green. He was very proactive in terms of motor car safety in the state in the early 60s, he first came to fame with the Ford Pinto when he exposed the Ford motor company and that’s another story in itself. However, he was pushing, and you’ve got to think now of the early 70s, 35-36 years ago, for all cars to be run on unleaded petrol. And he got that law through so all the cars that were out on airfields parked up and in the docks waiting to go had to all come back in and run on unleaded gasoline, as the Yanks call it. And that was done, then the next thing was, they said, “Hang on, we want laminated glass all round in the car, not just the front screen.” We believe part of that, not losing the fact that the fundamental mistake with the TR7 that everything cascades down from was the design was piss poor, and everything cascaded down from that. In terms of the unleaded gasoline, the laminated glass, we believe that was a convenient way of having import controls.

So there’s some of the problems associated with the TR7, I could tell you that when the plant eventually closed we were told that we couldn’t make enough cars etc., the information that come to me was that in the body rate in Coventry, where the TR7 went to never exceeded what we were building per hour. Yet they were telling us that we weren’t building enough per hour but they never exceeded what we were building, but therein lies another story.

With the TR7 being moved to Coventry, what was the relationship like between workers in Merseyside and workers in Coventry?
With respect, if any factory’s closing, anyway, whether they’re making cars, chocolate biscuits, football shirts and their work is going, say, from Liverpool to Manchester or Birmingham, what’s anybody going to think? Say if your lecturers got their college closed, and all the work was being transferred to a college in Birkenhead and they weren’t getting transferred with it, if they were losing their jobs, what would they think of the college in Birkenhead taking their work when they were fighting to keep it? So in any situation it’s going to be like that, but I don’t think it was any worse than what I’ve said, in fact, contrary to that, Derek Robinson, a.k.a. Red Derek, who was a convener down in the Midlands addressed us in the Liverpool stadium and in fact the Mini, not the new Mini, the old Mini that only ceased production about three or four years ago, and in 1977 he said to us that if we were prepared to fight and win, British Leyland still wanted to produce Minis and they were talking about transferring the work to Belgium. He made it quite clear it quite clear that if we stayed and fought, we could get the Mini coming into British Leyland. Unfortunately the majority of the workforce decided to take the pennies, so that one ended.

What was the relationship between workers and shop stewards and trade union officials? How far do you feel the union supported you in your time at British Leyland?
In terms of the Transport & General Workers Union, I can’t talk about any other union, I’ve personally been a member of this union for the best part of 40 years now, in the car industry, because I look after Jaguar at the moment. The car industry has traditionally been so well organised that they very rarely need the services of the full time official, because we had such a good structure. On site 2 we had about a hundred shop stewards and 3 full time conveners, when we needed support from the union and the full time official, we always got that. That wasn’t a problem as such. In the car industry, and I’m talking about the T&G now, years could go by back in those days and we’d never see the official on the site, because we were big and ugly enough to look after ourselves. We rarely needed the services of the full time official, but when we did it was usually forthcoming.

The following is some further detail on the role of the trade unions in Merseyside that Tony Mcqade wished to explain
When British Leyland closed site 2 in 78, there were a lot of people like me who were blacklisted, could never prove we were but a lot of things came out of that, not long afterwards, Dunlop closed, with about 3,000 people, not long after that, site 1 closed, with 3,000+ people and about that time Massey Ferguson’s in Kirby closed with about 2,000 people. And out of that came a lot of young shop stewards who were black listed and we went on to establish the unemployed centres, the people’s march for jobs, the big space and the biggest push that came out of local stuff was from a lot of angry shop stewards who were getting thrown around by Thatcher. So the unemployed centres got established, a lot of the drive from that came from former shop stewards from the car industry. And the ‘One Fund For All’, which supports and finances the unemployed centres in Merseyside, was based on the ‘Drive Workers Ten Pence’ scheme, which we establish in the early 70s.

At British Leyland in the early 70s, believe it or not we’re talking about 71/72, we were putting crèches on for our branch meetings, thirty odd years ago we were putting crèches on at our branch meetings in Transport House in Liverpool. We were insisting that we had an input when people were being taken on; that so many people had to be disabled, so many people had to be black and so many people had to be women. Thirty odd years ago, we were doing those sorts of things.

Unfortunately, those sort of things never made the headlines in the Liverpool echo and the fact that we were giving thousands of pounds a week to the likes of Alder Hay Children’s Hospital, to people who had lost a family member, a wife a husband, a child whatever. The Liverpool Echo didn’t want to print that on the front page. They wanted to print it if we were out on strike and they wouldn’t want to print, thirty odd years ago, that this horrible trade union was insisting that more black people be employed, that more women be employed, that more disabled people be employed, that more younger people be employed, that more older people be employed. All those things we were doing thirty odd years ago, it’s not bad, is it?

So there’s the other side of the coin, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like the One Fund For All at the unemployed centres, we established because at a plant with three and a half thousand people working a lot of hours, predominantly men; incidentally, the highest paid people on that site were women, they were on more money than anybody and no man could get in there, they’d shake your head of if you tried to get in there, but what’d happen is that someone would die, wife or child, God forbid, whatever and there’d be collections around the plant. And we found through the Stewards Committee that when there was a good week, with 3,000 people thirty odd years ago, everyone would throw a pound in and that family would get £3,000. Somebody else might die a few weeks later, but we were being laid off or on strike, so everybody’s skint, so instead of putting a pound in, everybody’s putting twenty pence in or two bob. And that’s it, one family is getting three or four hundred quid, while another gets three thousand pounds and we thought that was wrong, it’s unfair, you couldn’t help it because of the situation that’d arise. So we set up the Drive Workers’ Ten Pence scheme, which was ten pence of every employees wages every week into a fund and there was a set figure then for if someone dropped dead, for arguments sake, the family then gets a fixed amount, about several thousand pounds or whatever. So it wasn’t depending on whether you had a good week or a bad week. And that was some of the social things we were trying to do, because there was no sick pay scheme as such and the pension scheme wasn’t worth a blow on a ragman’s trumpet. When it wrapped up after about eight or nine years and the plant closed, they got about two hundred quid about three years ago, with pensions being paid out.

So there were a lot of positive things that we did. But I might add that’s happening all the while, that these trade unionists just on Merseyside who, every week, are doing a lot of positive things in their local communities and assisting their members were they struggle financially or whatever and making all sorts of massive contributions, not just to workers in struggle all around the world but also their individual members who have got financial problems, helping and assisting and giving to local hospitals and children’s hospitals. They’re doing that every day of the week and that doesn’t find the front of newspapers, but as soon as they do something wrong, well. It’s not good copy is it, front of the Liverpool Echo Ford workers give £3,000 to a man who’s lost his wife and has got no money to pay the rent or whatever. But they’ll put it on the front of the paper if 400 of them go out on strike