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British Engineering Workers Take Up Fight for 35-Hour Week

December 29, 1989

KINGSTON-UPON-THAMES, England (AP) _ Engineering workers have taken up the cause of a 35-hour work week in Britain, where they are striking for longer weekends without cuts in pay.

Among those targeted have been Rolls-Royce PLC, a maker of aviation engines, and British Aerospace PLC, which makes Harrier vertical-takeoff ″jump jets.″

The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions has brought 10,000 workers out on strike since mid-October in a selective campaign to shorten Britain’s basic 39-hour work week for its 2 million members, nearly all in engineering industries.

″If you give people the opportunity, they would opt for a longer weekend or an extra holiday rather than a pay raise,″ said its general secretary, Alex Ferry.

″The hours of relaxation have become more and more important.″

The 17-union confederation targeted four companies, and has already reached agreement on a 37-hour week by 1992 with three of them, including Rolls-Royce aviation subsidiary Smiths Industries PLC of Cheltenham in southwest England, and NEI-Parsons Ltd., an engineering company in Newcastle in the northeast.

Some 2,000 manual workers at Rolls-Royce in Glasgow, Scotland, voted Dec. 16 to end a six-week strike after being offered a 37-hour week by November 1991.

In return, local unions have agreed to greater flexibility on working practices and on job training to enable workers to become more adept and more productive.

A month-old strike of 7,100 manual workers at British Aerospace plants in Preston, Chester and Kingston-upon-Thames is expected to last into the new year.

The confederation has threatened to hit more of Britain’s 5,000 engineering companies with walkouts in 1990 if they do not reduce their basic hours without cutting pay.

The Engineering Employers Federation on Nov. 16 suspended nationwide bargaining with unions over the 35-hour dispute, and left each company to hammer out individual deals.

For years, labor unions have argued that a shorter work week will create new jobs and curb high unemployment.

The 35-hour goal was at the heart of a key West German metal workers strike in 1984.

The campaign, which also surfaced periodically in countries such as Denmark, France and Italy in the 1980s, has lowered the average basic work week for manual workers to between 37 1/2 hours and 39 hours in at least 10 West European countries, according to the International Labor Organization in Geneva.

That compares with the standard U.S. work week of 40 hours, which has remained unchanged since World War II.

In recent years, average annual paid vacations also have lengthened to at least five weeks in France, Spain, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Luxembourg, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and West Germany.

In the United States, manual workers get an average of 12 days annual leave.

At British Aerospace’s military aircraft division in Kingston-upon-Thames near London, 1,200 manual workers have been on strike since mid-November.

British Aerospace is insisting on a return to work as a precondition of negotiations.

Deryck Gomez, a 21-year company veteran, says British Aerospace already presses workers to work an extra six hours a week on average to meet its production schedule of 24 Harriers for the U.S. Marine Corps and 20 for Britain’s Royal Air Force.

″The leisure is more important to me than working overtime,″ Gomez said. ″You spend more time with the wife and kids.

″People who work here, they get so uptight. There’s been more work on the Harrier than ever before. It’s more detailed work.″

Skilled assembly-line workers at British Aerospace earn the equivalent of about $340 a week in basic pay and get five weeks’ vacation.

Engineering unions favor the shorter week as an inflation-proof pay rise, and argue they have earned it because productivity has risen 43 percent since 1979, when the work week slipped from 40 to 39 hours across most of Western Europe.

The unions claim a shorter work week also will recover some of the 1 million engineering jobs lost to recession and technological advances in Britain in the last decade.

But employers fear that without flexibility, a 35-hour week could blunt further Britain’s competitive edge against overseas rivals.

″What companies have to ensure when they make these agreements is their productivity doesn’t suffer,″ said Brian Balcomb, spokesman for the employers federation.

He said trade union statistics show productivity in British engineering lags that of France and West Germany by 55 percent and Japan and the United States by more than 100 percent.

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