When Ken Martin of the North of England Development Council (NEDC) visits America to round up investment for the northeast, he is typically greeted with two questions. The first is, "How are you?" The next is, "And how are you industrial relations?"
Since his job is to answer, he replies that Britain's reputation as a strike-happy industrial nightmare is vastly overblown. Armed with a holsterful of statistics, he fires off the following arguments:
* The United Kingdom's 1973-1977 annual average of days lost per thousand workers is 704 (Department of Employment figures). Of the major industrialized countries, only France, Japan, and West Germany are lower, with the United States running about 1,100.
* According to a recent Department of Employment survey, 98 percent of the manufacturing plants in the United Kingdom showed no stoppages of any kind. More than half of Britain's stoppages occurred in plants employing over 1,000 workers -- larger than most overseas parent companies want to set up.
* The ten most strike-prone areas in Britain, according to a 1968-1973 government survey, start with Merseyside (Liverpool), slide down through areas of Scotland and Wales, and bottom out with the industrial northeast in tenth place.
* The many favorable testimonials garnered from firms that have located here -- coming from America, Europe, and other parts of the United Kingdom -- are studded with descriptions of the work force as "loyal," "adaptable," and "stable."
Yet in some ways the north, like Lady Macbeth, doth protest too much. Glossy brochures and earnest conversations flowing from the north's various industrial promotion agencies rivet attention on the subject by insisting that labor relations are fine. If they really are such non-issues, why the fuss?
Part of the reason, it is argued, lies in the nature of the British press. National newspapers, radio, and television reach every corner of this island nation. Audiences, as editors know, like to hear about what interests them, and since just under 50 percent of the British work force is unionized (rising to an astonishing 85 percent in the northeast), a labor story is always eye-catching. But press reports of the actions of a militant and irresponsible minority (says this argument) ignore the unnewsworthy and placid majority. The result: the notoriety of the "British disease" of striking long and lustily over issues that are as often political as economic.
But the notoriety is not entirely mythic. Few companies contacted by the Monitor admit to being entirely free from labor-relations problems, of which strikes and stoppages are, after all, only one symptom. Absenteeism is another, aggravated in proportion as the worker's task (screwing tips on soldering irons or bottoms on thermos bottles) is mindless and hypnotic, but eased in proportion as the management is imaginative in such things as work schedules and productivity bonuses.
Then, too, there are demarcation disputes -- border skirmishes between unions about who gets to do what. The older industries, where changes in technology have produced a slow accretion of dozens of different craft unions, provide classic examples -- shipbuilding, for instance, where the advent of the ironclads meant that the carpenter (who bored holes through wood) had to yield to the metalworker the moment his bit touched iron. Much of that has fortunately disappeared, although such attitudes still threaten to drag what is left of the old industrial giants further to ward extinction. But the bulk of the never northern industries are now one-union -- and a few, like the Black & Decker plant at Spennymoor, are nomunion.
Beyond such out-and-out disputes, however, is the daily challenge of a working relationship between management and labor that is essentially adversarial. One executive observed that, where people have been laid off (made redundant, in British parlance) several times in their lives, there grows up "a deep-seated suspicion of management." Labor relations for him, based on such a measured of distrust, have been adequate but not easy.
D. H. Betty, plant manager for the Armstrong Cork plant in Cleveland, agreed. The labor relations environment here is, he quips, "about seventy-seven thousand percent" different from that at his headquarters in Pennsylvania. Negotiations, he says, are better conducted here than in America -- "very polite, if firm." But at times it has been frustrating. "They never want to quit," he sighs -- recalling one five-hour argument in his office about whether the horn on a lift truck was loud enough.
Generally, however, employers here confess a liking for the northeast's worker. By nature wary, the work force has been welded together by the common adversity of unemployment. So, in the eyes of one steel corporation spokesman, "the people don't get excited" about industrial difficulties. Instead, they see closures -- as a secretary in Consett said -- as "just one of those things that happen." This tractability -- some union leaders would call it apathy -- means, said the steel spokesman, that "you don't get bad relations in the northeast," adding that, by contrast, "The Irish, the Welsh, and the Scotsman would cause a fight with a shadow."
The consensus among managers seems to be that you get out of industrial relations what you put in. One firm, Nashville-based Aladdin Industries, was lured to depressed Hartlepool because of its location, labor force, and development grants, and appears to have succeeded largely through enlightened management. "If there is a British disease," says Alan Sanders, the British-born executive director of the 13-year-old plant, "I don't think it's caused by the unions. If there is something wrong, it is usually because communications have broken down."
He steadily communicates quantities of information -- on production, finance, markets, and so forth -- to his 320 employees. And he shuns the class-conscious standoffishness of some managers -- so much so that his secretary calls him by his first name.
The result: a business running smoothly. Why? Because, he says, "If you take the people out of business, you've got nothing at all." Hartlepool, to this extent, has come a long way from the days of the Victorian industrial barons.