Industrial disputes linked to the introduction of new technology are nothing new. But a dispute brought about by the introduction of new technology which union members want to use but are being asked not to is certainly different.
At Ford’s research centre at Dunton, dynamometers – high-tech computerised rolling roads for emissions testing – are usually operated by skilled hourly-paid workers.
Ford wants six new units to be manned by salaried technicians, who will have to be specially trained for the job.
The union claims it would be simpler and cheaper to give its own testing experts additional training to use the new gear, rather than bring in new people and train them from scratch.
Ford will not comment on its side of the story, as it says talks are still on-going. But one can imagine that the car maker may see greater flexibility in using so-called white collar technicians, perhaps freeing up its design engineers to work more on development, and less on testing.
One could also speculate that if it used salaried rather than hourly-paid staff, it could put the testing work more easily out to contract, thus coping better with fluctuations in the workload. This too may make business sense.
But any large manufacturer – Ford included – must make sure skilled hourly-paid workers who come up through apprenticeship schemes still have worthwhile career goals to aim for.
The unions are worried that if hourly-paid workers are denied all the interesting jobs, there will have been little point in them doing all that training. The risk is that bright school-leavers considering an apprentice-based career in manufacturing may come to the same conclusion, and find a job elsewhere.