Volume 2 Number 7
Jack ' Who Won't Be Boxed
01 July 1989
When the very survival of the largest British motor car company was in doubt-and with it many thousands of jobs-help came from some unexpected people. One was an engineer worker named Malcolm Jack. He tells his story to Kenneth Noble.
When you see the flashy new Rovers surging up Britain's crowded motorways, it is easy to forget how narrowly the largest British motor car manufacturer avoided succumbing to `the British disease' of industrial chaos and class war.
In 1973 - 74 nearly one quarter of all British car production was lost through strikes. When British Leyland Motor Corporation faced collapse in late 1974, the Government stepped in. But despite massive cash injections the future looked bleak. Indeed, when the toolmakers called a stoppage in February 1977, The Economist described the company as `next to being a dying one'. In October that year Michael (later Sir Michael) Edwardes took over as Chairman. He later said, `It was an industry that was torn apart by industrial relations disputes... Productivity was low; quality... was low and market share was declining at an alarming rate... The average person was crying out for leadership, but the vocal militants were being led by the nose by ideological extremists.'
Yet, despite losses of £1,489 million during the next five years many underlying weaknesses were answered and British Leyland (now Rover Group) came back from the brink.
Many pundits have analyzed the economic and political factors, the management strategy and the trade union responses which produced this about turn. But behind it all lie the stories of many individuals whose influence is significant, if unsung.
Take Malcolm Jack, for instance, a long-standing communist engineering worker who decided that he could no longer go along with the `extremists'. In 1978, on his personal initiative, he averted a potentially disastrous strike at British Leyland's Drews Lane factory.
Today, Jack still works at Drews Lane. He also serves on the National Committee of Britain's 800,000-strong Amalgamated Engineering Union.
His earliest memory is of sitting on a dark staircase which seemed a mile or two long in a Dr Barnardo's orphanage. When he was five he was taken home by foster-parents. `I wasn't treated very well,' he recalls, without visible emotion, as he goes on to describe his `pretty horrible childhood'. The couple were church-goers but they maltreated him and his younger brother. `My upbringing was that children were bloody pests and "shut up and do as you're told".' Not all his childhood was unhappy, however. He speaks with great fondness of his adopted `grandma': `I had enough to eat with her.'
His greatest regret, he says, is that he did not keep up his music. He played the euphonium in a Salvation Army band and at home his foster-mother taught him the organ for seven years. Not that he enjoyed it: `I got plenty of hidings if I played the wrong note. She used to hit me with her baton and it was painful, I can tell you.'
He ran away several times, sometimes sleeping under hedges. And he rejected his foster-parents' professed Christianity.
Malcolm Jack's first job, at 14, was as a footplate man shovelling coal on steam-engines. This was wartime and he recalls being strafed by German planes: `Not very pleasant when you've got a great big load of petrol.' However, he survived the war, ending up in the army. He was demobbed on a Thursday and joined the merchant navy the following Monday. `I hadn't got a home, you see.' He had however met his future wife, Pat. So after a few months at sea he went to live in her parents' home.
Jack is notable for rarely fitting into easily labelled moulds of thought. So he happily married Pat in a church.
A series of jobs in engineering followed and although he had no recognized apprenticeship he gradually learnt the skilled trade of a 'universal grinder'. He says, `What I lacked in formal training I made up for in being willing.' After an interlude as a steward on luxury liners, including the Queen Mary- `damned hard work but lucrative' - he and Pat bought a home in Birmingham and he found a job at Drews Lane.
He began to take a keen interest in union affairs, although he didn't feel he had been unjustly treated himself. `Perhaps I was just an angry young man,' he reflects in his soft-spoken manner. Ironically his first office came as a result of union injustice.Some shop stewards held a meeting to elect another without informing all the members. Jack spoke out so strongly that he found himself `sort of lumbered as the shop steward'.
Around this time, Jack was impressed by a Marxist he met in the tool room. Jack became `greedy' to read everything he could about Lenin and the Soviet Union, the suffering the revolutionaries had gone through and what they had achieved. `I drew a lot of strength from that, and the strong conviction that what we were doing was right.' He also liked the comradeship among the Marxists. But, while he embraced the philosophy of atheism and class war and was always ready to challenge authority, he says, `I suppose I've been lucky. I've never really hated anybody in my life.'
At this time few car workers belonged to a union. But in 1956 the employers suddenly announced that some men in Jack's factory would be sacked the following day. A fortnight's strike won the men's reinstatement, and from then on the union was always consulted on such matters.
`But by the mid 1970s, we hardly had time to make cars,' says Jack. `We were too busy fighting battles in the factory.' Then, over a period of years, he began to question his beliefs. He felt that the unions were now abusing their growing strength by defending malpractices. `People were going home early and paying someone to clock out for them. Men were even running businesses in the factory. It's easier to say what you couldn't buy than what you could - food, a car, anything. If you wanted a suit made, they'd actually have the cloth there.' The management seemed incapable of doing anything about it.
Jack finally reached a conclusion: `I saw all I had fought for and where it had led us and I thought, this isn't the sort of world I want to bring my kids up in.'
His decisive break with the left came when the shop stewards called a mass meeting to get backing for a strike. `I knew that the proper disputes procedure hadn't been carried out,' says Jack, who was not a shop steward at that point. It was not the effect on the company that worried him but on the credibility of the trade union. He and a couple of friends decided to challenge the leadership. In the matter-of-fact tone that you would use to describe a visit to a fish and chip shop, he recalls his appeal `from the floor' to the 5,000 workers not to go on strike until the proper procedure had been followed. When this was put to the meeting it was carried - as Jack fully expected: `The men hadn't been consulted and they were really uptight about it.'
That evening Jack was interviewed on national television news. Before the broadcast the reporter expressed surprise at Jack's composure. Jack replied, `If you were going to ask me about butterflies, then I'd be nervous. But not on this subject.'
He needed all his nerve over the following days as he was ostracized by his former comrades. Some came to his home and threatened him. Jack told them, `The trade union movement doesn't belong to you.' His fellow workers were pleased that someone had finally stood up to the bully boys.
At that time, a prolonged strike could well have closed the factory for ever. Certainly, as Jack says, things were so bad that any improvement seemed like a massive change of attitudes.
Soon after this Jack was elected a shop steward. Higher positions followed and he has been on the union's national policy-making body of 72 for the last nine years.
On the future of the trade unions, he says that they must still defend jobs, wages and conditions, `but having said that it's how ,you defend them. If a company makes x amount of profit and you demand wages that eat up that profit, it can be argued that you're jeopardizing the members' jobs in that firm.'
He describes himself as a moderate in his union politics, but he still feels strongly about injustice. `I don't think British companies know how to treat their work force properly,' he says, claiming that conditions in his factory have got worse. `It's dirtier and they don't give any consideration to the heating.' He looks back on his life in industry as `a long, slow, hard grind'. He once took his son into the tool room and warned him, `If you don't get your head down soon this is where you'll wind up.' It had the desired effect and his son is now a civil servant.
Jack has two weeks' paid leave each year to attend the national Committee meeting but most of his trade union work is in the factory. He won't claim any credit for answered problems, saying that you're never sure how that happens -`If there is a problem you try and get on the phone and resolve it without ever getting into formal talks. Then it's not so abrasive. People don't feel they've got to be seen to be taking a particular position.'
Unlike many former Marxists, Jack has little time for anticommunism which, he says, a lot of people use for their own personal ends. `It is important to be for something.' He talks of the need for a society where people accept Christian ethics of behaviour `even if they might fall down a lot'. Though the average guy may claim he's got no time for Christianity, Jack says, `they may not be able to articulate it but most people want their children to be brought up with some reasonable chance of educational success and not to be molested or have pornography and drugs shoved down their throats.'
Typically, Jack's use of Christian terminology does not mean that faith comes easily. `I'm not even convinced that there is a God now. I'm fairly open-minded about it.' He says he envies people who can pray. `It must be nice to have that sort of faith.' But he suspects that poor people, who may need faith most, find it most difficult -`perhaps because they are more cynical'.
Although Jack gives the impression of enjoying his own company, he does value comradeship. He finds this within an informal group of shop-floor and management people who coordinate their efforts to bring more responsible attitudes into British industry. He is also quick to stress that he draws great strength from Pat's support. It would be almost impossible, he says, to do the job properly with a volatile family life. Had his upbringing affected his behaviour as a parent? `If you've been brought up in a normal family you've got examples,' he replies. `I didn't have that and I was at a terrible disadvantage in knowing how to react to children. It's a good job I married the woman I did.' Although he knew instinctively that it was wrong to hit children, he used to `sound off' at his own. `It's taken me till I became a grandparent to learn how to react to children.'
He feels grateful that his own suffering as a youngster gave him a humane feeling towards other people who were being treated unjustly. Recalling how acts of kindness had a lasting effect on him, Jack concludes, `If this gives hope to anybody, I suffered when I was a youngster and yet you can make good.'