Paul Foot

Seize the time

(June 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.165, June 1993, pp.10-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The strike at the Timex plant in Dundee has become a symbol of resistance for all workers facing job losses and bosses’ attacks. Paul Foot visited the picket line in Dundee, talked to strikers and draws some lessons from the dispute

We socialists are always saying that workers change in struggle – but what a joy and a relief it is when we can test the theory in flesh and blood. When I drew back the curtains in Tayport at 6.30 a.m. on Thursday 20 May, the sun streamed in – it was a glorious spring morning. Half an hour later, across the river and through the city of Dundee, the picket line at Timex was revelling in the sunshine. There were 60 to 70 people there, their numbers alone a great shout of mockery at the Tory anti-union laws’ insistence on six pickets. There was laughter and anger in equal measure – laughter among the pickets themselves, anger as the scabs’ lorries came up the hill and turned into the gate. Inside the lorries, and inside the private cars of the supervisors, strike breakers cowered, some of them hiding their face in balaclavas, others making a pathetic show of defiance, especially after they passed the gates. Each vehicle was greeted with a great roar of rage.

Afterwards, some pickets went home. Many others lingered in the sun. There were tea and ham rolls galore. The women crossed the road, laid out their chairs, sat down and talked.

Margaret Thompson had just come back from Norway where she picketed the headquarters of the Olsen line, eventual owners of Timex. She’s been to London, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton on delegations.

‘I’ve been a shop steward for 20 years’ she said, ‘but I never felt half what I feel today. I think it’s because I realise my capabilities. I’m not just a worker at Timex, I’ve got a brain. If you do the same thing for 20 years, your brain goes soft. When I went into Timex as a girl, I was quiet as a lamb. Now I feel like a rottweiler.

‘I think the best thing about this is you suddenly realise you have friends everywhere. At a factory in Newcastle they had exactly £110 in their coffers. After they heard us speak they gave us ... £110, and I suddenly realised I was crying. They’d never met us, and they gave us everything.’

Jessie Britton joins in.

‘They are always complaining about outside agitators. But where would we be without the people from outside who support us? When Campbell Christie [general secretary of the STUC] was here the other day, he came up to talk to me. He asked a young Militant supporter standing next to me: "Do you work at Timex?" He knew that the lad didn’t. When the lad said no, Campbell looked at me knowingly, as if he knew I disapproved. But I told him straight we could never have got where we have without these young people selling papers and whipping up support for us.’

Jessie doesn’t think much of the constant advice from her union leaders to obey the law.

‘They are worried about their assets,’ she says, ‘but we aren’t worried about our assets. We haven’t got any. What use are union assets to us if we lose the strike and can’t have a union?’

I asked gingerly about the role of women in the strike. ‘Oh,’ she laughed, ‘right here the men do the dishes and the women do the fighting.’

All morning, the wit and banter were interrupted with furious shouts of invective whenever a scab lorry (usually from a firm called Scottish Express) delivered supplies. Debbie Osborne sums up the mood.

‘When I was in there (contemptuous jerk of the head at the factory gates) I felt like a nobody. Now I feel a somebody. In fact I feel ten times more important than anyone in there.’

I first went to Dundee as a reporter for the Daily Record in 1963 on an assignment to cover a by-election. John Strachey, who had only just won Dundee West in 1959, had died, and the Labour candidate was a nondescript Labour councillor called Peter Doig. Labour’s campaign concentrated on the new prosperity of the city, one of the worst hit by the 1930s slump. Labour boasted, with some reason, of the enormous success of their post-war policy of shifting new industries into the unemployment black spots of the 1930s. Nowhere was that policy more successful than in Dundee. Boosted by huge grants and tax concessions, industry after industry settled in the purpose built industrial estates round town. The old precarious industrial base of jute and shipbuilding was transformed by sparkling new modern factories making the consumer goods of the future, office equipment, wristwatches, fridges. The names most associated with this success were National Cash Register and Timex, each employing thousands of workers, each recognising trade unions Whose stewards came to Labour’s platforms glowing in their new found confidence and strength. Labour won handsomely and won again just as well in the 1964 general election.

My reports for the Daily Record were all for Labour, all hostile to the cocksure jute manufacturer who stood for the Tories. But I was unimpressed by Labour’s confidence. The huge corporations which owned these new industries were not Labour corporations. Labour had no control over, nor even a representative on these distant capitalist boardrooms. What would happen if the post-war boom petered out? Would the first factories to suffer not be the ones which had been set up as outposts, the ones with strong unions in foreign countries?

So it proved. The two huge recessions of 1981 and 1990 played havoc with the new industry so lovingly and expensively redistributed to Dundee. National Cash Register and Timex are still there, pathetic shadows of what they used to be. Timex, for instance, now makes no watches at all. The strong union agreements of the 1960s have been replaced by ‘sweetheart deals’, including even no-strike deals, which left the stewards and rank and file permanently on the defensive.

A former president of the engineering union, Hugh Scanlon, once said in a famous TUC speech that every scratch on the trade union movement can lead to gangrene. The sweetheart approach of his successors led to gangrene soon enough. Every concession by the unions was greeted by the employers with cries for more. In Dundee like everywhere else the employers, led on this occasion by the Engineering Employers Federation, started to yearn for the day when they would not have to deal with unions at all. True, the unions were a pushover. But how much more of a pushover would the workers be, how much more clear profit was there to be made, if the unions were utterly broken once and for all?

This is the fashionable thinking which led the US corporation which runs Timex to select an ardent Thatcherite from Surrey, Peter Hall, as the new president of their Scottish enterprise. Hall came armed with all the anti-union claptrap of US Timex’s Human Resources Department. He started ‘conversations’ with selected workers which, they soon realised, were aimed at seeking out ‘unhelpful elements’. He placed his own ‘loyalist’ spies in crucial positions.

Shortly before Christmas last year, he announced lay offs. On 5 January the workers all got letters – some ‘thick’ (the sack), others ‘thin’ (not the sack). They refused to accept the letters, and occupied the canteen. Hall promised negotiations. The workers went back to work, effectively accepting the principle of lay offs, though they balloted (92 percent) for a strike. From 8 to 29 January they worked rotating shifts to cover for their laid off workmates, and waited for the negotiations which never came. There was no whisper of negotiation from Hall. A plea to go to ACAS was vigorously snubbed. On 29 January, frustrated by the constant prevarication, the workers came out on strike. On 17 February they reported en masse for work. They were told they could return only if they accepted a 10 percent cut in wages and other humiliations, including pension reductions. When they refused, they were locked out, and have been ever since.

The tactics of Hall and his Human Resources henchmen are familiar enough in this recession. Since the reaction of the Timex workers has been described by many commentators as ‘old fashioned’, it is worth recalling that Hall’s union busting dates back to the stockyards of Chicago in the first decade of the century, and even earlier. Now as then, success for them depends exclusively on workers’ submission. All those in the trade union movement who have encouraged or tolerated such submission have played into the hands of the employers. Complete union organisations have been laid waste without even a gesture of revolt.

Timex, on the other hand, has become a byword in the whole British labour movement because the workers there refused to submit, and have set up a picket and a campaign so powerful that the Timex bosses are split. A historic, old fashioned victory is on the cards.

Only on the cards, however. The Engineering Employers Federation and their friends in the government will not decide one day simply to pack it in and let the workers back. They know full well what a disaster such a victory would be for employers all over Scotland.

The bosses want to win. They have the usual powerful allies. The Timex strike has the unanimous support of both local councils – Dundee City and Tayside. But the Dundee police still see it as their central duty to protect a rogue employer’s inalienable right to hire scab labour and break strikes. The police behaviour on the mass demonstration on Monday 17 May was abominable. One young woman had her arm broken during arrest, was taken to hospital to have it set, hauled back to the cells, kept behind bars for 27 hours until finally she was released – without charge. Here is the classic outcome of total reliance on support from the Labour Party. Labour supports the strikers – in the councils, in the TUC, in its penetration of almost half the Scottish electorate.

But Labour cannot prevent the police, whom they theoretically control, from protecting scabs or breaking the arm of a young woman who came to Dundee to express her solidarity with a cause Labour supports.

Almost everyone in Dundee supports the strike, but the machinery of the state in Dundee is determined to break it. If the momentum of the strike is lost even for a week, the EEF and its state will get its breath back, reassert itself, reorganise its newspapers (which have been curiously wobbly on the issue) and launch another offensive.

At the strike committee in the AEEU halls where I went after my morning on the picket line, the talk was all of keeping up the momentum, of boosting further the pickets and the delegations, of calling another mass demonstration outside Timex and seeking the help of more outside agitators.

These men and women are out to win. They deserve to win and they need to win. Above all they can win. The entire resources – human and financial – of the labour movement should be put at their disposal.


Last updated on 18.1.2005