UK: My best deal - Bill Jordan, president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. (2 of 2)

UK: My best deal - Bill Jordan, president of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. (2 of 2) - The union's reply was unequivocal. On April 9 1989 the talking stopped. "It had got us nowhere so we sat down and worked out a strategy for industrial action."

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The union's reply was unequivocal. On April 9 1989 the talking stopped. "It had got us nowhere so we sat down and worked out a strategy for industrial action."

Three obstacles governed their thinking: the engineering industry was at its financially strongest for more than 25 years; the new employment laws were severely restrictive; no trade union had scored a national victory for 10 years.

As a result, industrial action was based on what Jordan calls "three pillars". First, attempts would be made to reach a negotiated settlement for a 37-hour week by 1992 at selected engineering companies. If the company failed to agree, a strike would be called. Second, in order to support the strikers the union would set a national levy of £4 a week (skilled) and £2 (unskilled). And thirdly, the union case would be supported "by a communications exercise not seen since the early days of trade unionism".

Four companies were selected for strike ballots: NEI Parsons, British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and Smiths Industries. Their manual workers voted overwhelmingly in favour. NEI Parsons, Smiths Industries and Rolls-Royce settled quickly. BAe, however, refused to give in.

With BAe holding out, the strike fund began to run low. The crunch came when Jordan had to tell a meeting of 3,000 BAe strikers in Chester just two weeks before Christmas that their strike pay was being halved. Of the 3,000 only 12 voted against. "I went in with a heavy heart. But I floated out in the knowledge the campaign was won. No employer in the country, however much he paid, could have bought support like that. In the end BAe held out for 23 weeks. It was the big test. All the other companies were sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what would happen."

Finally BAe settled. The union then turned its attention towards the rest of the industry. Those companies that had been sitting on the sidelines now came under pressure to concede a 37-hour week or face a strike. Most submitted.

The shorter hours campaign, Jordan says, has been an unqualified success for the unions. "Many people thought trade unions had lost their relevance. But we've shown that we can improve the quality of their lives." Jordan, though, is far from complacent and now intends to press for 35 hours. But for the time being he is prepared to hold his fire. "My principal concern is the recession. My most important objective has always been my members' jobs."

(Chris Blackhurst is City editor of the Sunday Express.)

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