Leading Article: Time ticks away for British management

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONLY IN their superficial details were the events at the Timex plant in Dundee yesterday a throwback to the bad old days of British industrial relations. Outside the factory was a crowd of some 3,000 demonstrators, almost 10 for every one of the workers sacked by the company. The Socialist Workers' Party battled against the police with gusto, hoping as ever to parlay an isolated strike into the downfall of the entire capitalist system. At the head of the marchers was Arthur Scargill, denouncing 'scab labour' with undiminished zeal and calling for illegal sympathy strikes up and down the land.

In its more important features, however, the Timex affair has turned British industrial history on its head. The AEEU engineering union, which represents the firm's former workers, has behaved with restraint and respect for the law throughout. When Timex declared its intention to lay off half its workforce because of a fall in demand, the union countered with the reasonable suggestion that the layoffs should be rotated among them. When the firm turned down that idea, the workers and the union played by the book. In a secret ballot, they voted overwhelmingly to strike - and did so largely in peace. Symbolising the union's moderate stance, its president, Bill Jordan, begged Mr Scargill to stay away. 'If you are trying to negotiate difficult waters,' he observed wryly, 'you do not send for the captain of the Titanic.'

It is the Timex management that has been tarnished by the dispute. Although the firm is now free to rehire selectively among the workers it sacked for going on strike three months ago, its new employees still cost far more than the pound or two an hour the firm would have to pay for labour in the Philippines. Timex has earned enough bad publicity in Britain to wipe out years of advertising. It has alienated the community near its factory. And its local management has lost credibility at head office, which felt obliged to send representatives across the Atlantic to sort out the problem.

The Government has had little to do with the affair. It was not because of Tory laws that the Timex workers lost their livelihoods. Firms had the right to sack striking workers, and then to rehire selectively from among their number afterwards, well before Margaret Thatcher came to power. But it is undoubtedly thanks to the 10 different pieces of Conservative legislation written into the statute books since then that neither the public nor the wider economy has been sucked into this bitter dispute. It is also thanks to those laws that unions have become cleaner and more effective organisations, no longer narrowly obsessed with this year's pay increase.

The dispute is a reminder, however, that even after union power has been so effectively circumscribed, a depressingly large number of companies in Britain still have poor relations with their workforces. No statutory rules - for instance putting workers on corporate boards - can change this. Companies must seek their own salvation: they need to view employees not as mere commodities, but as their most prized assets, and the source of their future competitiveness. The number of British managers who could honestly claim to take this view and act on it is worryingly small.