Chris Harman

Fighting Back Against the Sack

Organising for occupation

(November 1980)

From Socialist Review, 15 November-14 December 1980: 9, pp.5-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The occupation of Gardners diesel engine factory in Manchester — part of the giant Hawker Siddeiey group — has received little national publicity in the media. But increasing numbers of trade union activists are seeing it as an immensely important struggle. A group of workers have at last taken a stand against the wave of closures and redundancies that are destroying two or three thousand jobs every day. It is not the first occupation under the present government — there were the occupations at Meccano’s and Massey Ferguson in Liverpool for example — but it is by far the biggest.

Its impact can already be seen by the excellent response delegations from the factory are receiving from one end of the country to another. The Manchester districts of the engineering union are making a rare move to levy all of their 100,000 members weekly in support of the occupation. And the Sheffield district is taking the unprecedented, step of pressing for a levy of its members in support of a struggle outside the district.

The Labour Party has called a national demonstration against unemployment in Liverpool for 29 November, which we urge all our readers to support. No doubt the presence of a contingent from Gardners there will show there is an alternative of fighting sackings to waiting three or four years for a Labour government!

But what is the background to the Gardner’s occupation? Why did the workers react differently from so many others who have accepted redundancy or closure? And how is the occupation organised?

Mick Brightman, an SWP member who has worked in the factory for four years and a member of its works committee talked to Socialist Review about these things.

Mick explained that the decision to occupy the factory was a result of the coming together of a number of different factors.

First there was the attitude of Hawker Siddeley, who took over the factory a couple of years ago. Since then management had been pushing for a worsening of conditions in the factory through a new piece work structure which the stewards rejected. When the stewards put in a claim for a 20% pay rise this summer, ‘the reply was a refusal to accept any points in our claim unless we accepted 700 redundancies — a quarter of the factory.’

And that was not all. ‘In the end we did get a reply to the wage claim — five per cent. They wanted to bring in the piece work structure we’d rejected. And to restrict the stewards’ and safety committee representatives duties.’

‘Our position as a stewards’ committee was opposition to redundancy and, as an alternative, work sharing, i.e. no job loss at all. Now, voluntary redundancy had been talked about, particularly by the staff unions. There were approximately 300 people that were of retirement age within a few years and early retirement may have been a way of avoiding a.confrontation. It’s very difficult to stop people volunteering for redundancy if the money is right.

‘But the severance pay management was offering for early retirement was minimal. And so the works committee put a position of opposition to redundancy per se to mass meetings.’

Faced with the attack on wages and conditions and jobs and union organisation the workforce voted, narrowly, to give the stewards a mandate to organise industrial action. The occupation began next day.

The generalised management offensive took place in a factory which has built up a very good level of organisation in recent years.

The factory has a very, very good tradition. There are hundreds of people who recognise that they’ve got a good union shop. That’s really been built up since the victory of 1973, when they had a 13 week sit in. Until then the factory was one of the worst organised and worst paid factories in Manchester. Sackings were common. 1973 sorted a lot of that out and built the union in the factory. A lot of people in the factory remember that. Since then there’s been consistent strong organisation.

‘It’s a piece work factory, under the Manchester piecework agreement. There is continually what the management calls “guerrilla warfare” on the shop floor — fights about piece work times. They’re normally settled by management conceding increases. That’s created a lot of wage drift since 1973 — £20 over and above domestic settlements. So Gardners’ wages are some of the highest in the Manchester district.

‘On top of that the factory has a reputation for never sending away anyone who wants support for their own dispute. We raised a thousand pounds for the firemens’ strike — from the shop stewards’ fund, shop floor collections, factory gate collections. There was seven hundred pounds raised for the bakers’ strike, and well over a thousand pounds for Adamson Containers. The steel workers collected on the gate two or three times.

‘Another example of good organisation there was the Anti-Nazi League. ANL leaflets were distributed on the gates by the stewards. I think we were the only factory in the country that did that. The argument was that it would be quite clear to the members where the stewards stood on racism in the factory.’

According to Mick this tradition of strong organisation was helped, when it came to the redundancies, by the attitude of the local officials.

‘John Tocher, AUEW divisonal organiser, made his name in the Roberts Arundel strike 12 years ago. He was very well involved in the Automat dispute over union recognition three years ago. That was a marginal victory. Then there was Adamson Containers last year, over the victimisation of stewards and the convenor — total victory after a 21 week strike.

‘He’s had more successes over the last ten years than almost any official in the country.

‘The attitude of the officials has helped a hell of a lot. A lot of people rely on the officials, and the fact that the officials have taken a strong position all the way through, have advised us to fight and have supported our argument to fight, that has been very important.’

Strong organisation and sympathetic officials have existed in other places, but the arguments for a fightback have been lost. A significant factor at Gardners is that this is not the case of the closure of a loss-making factory in a nearly bankrupt combine, but of management trying to increase their profits through rationalisation in a very healthy concern. This has meant that workers have not felt that there is no chance of making the company back down.

‘The economic arguments have been very strong for us. Hawker Siddeiey is a very rich multinational. It has been increasing its profits — with on top of that the £100m it received when the aero side was nationalised.

‘Gardners is considered to be the Rolls Royce of diesel engines. Hawker Siddeiey are installing £17m of new machinery in the factory. And so the economic arguments have been very strong for saying to the workforce that Hawker Siddeiey can afford

il;. that the commodity is very good and that there is no reason for redundancy.’

The combination of good organisation and the feeling that the company can afford to give in has been aided by yet another factor — the way in which the socialist argument has been pushed in the factory for a number of years.

There’s always been IS or SWP influence. The local IS did a lot of work around the 1973 occupation. They recruited some people at that time, and one or two of them are still in the factory. Although they are not members now, they are quite close. The factory for the last seven years has had an IS/SWP tradition. There’s always been a political argument in the factory. The Communist Party has never really had a hold, although they’ve a number of members there, including the convenor.

‘Since I’ve been there — in the last four years — we’ve consistently put in bulletins. Sometimes we’ve not been very good about it — even before the strike we’d only put in one in six months. But normally we put in about one every month.

‘We managed to recruit some people, and we’ve been very influential on the shop stewards’ committee in winning ideas — On solidarity, of course, and wage claims. We took opposition to the management’s wage offers last year and the year before to mass meetings, and although we didn’t win we argued the case very hard as a left alternative. I’ve been able to get on the seven-strong works committee on an SWP platform. Everyone knows I’m in the SWP. There was a big argument about whether I should go on the works committee, but I won the election.’

Finally, Mick believes, a shift in feeling nationally has made the occupation possible.

‘I really believe the factory slogan “Enough is enough” sums everything up. There’s definitely a mood around the country — you can feel it up in Manchester but I felt it as well in Birmingham when I was there getting support. People are starting to say enough is enough, although they don’t feel that they can fight in a whole number of situations.’

It was this combination of different factors that made the occupation possible. ‘Some people have said that the reason we got a strike at Gardners was because of the SWP. It’s not that. Some people have said because of rank and file organisation. It’s not that. Some people have said because of the officials. It’s not that. It’s an accumulation of things, it’s all the lot together.

‘A strong position was put at the mass meeting. Tocher spoke very well and very hard. The convenor spoke well and hard. The management attempted to pack the front of the meeting with supervision. They had about two or three hundred at the front of the meeting. But it wasn’t enough for them to win the vote.’

If there is a golden rule about occupations it is just this: don’t sit tight in your own individual factory, but get out and press for support from other places immediately.

Gardners took note of this rule from the beginning.

‘Traditionally it takes six or eight weeks to get a dispute made official in the AUEW. The’ majority of disputes in the AUEW have been made official after they’ve finished. So we sent two delegations down to the union executive before the dispute even began. A third delegation went down when the dispute had been on for a week. Their instructions from the rank and file in factory were that if the dispute was not made official that day there would be two sit-ins — one in Eccles and the other in the union headquarters in Peckham Road.

‘But the executive made it official.

‘Since then we’ve circulated all the national officials and all the district committees and we’ve asked them to circulate their convenors and branch secretaries. And all the reports coming in say they are doing that, because it’s a nationally official confed strike.’

But the workers have not simply waited for officials to do the job for them. Delegations have been sent out to all the major areas so far. ‘The number of delegates we’ve had out so far suggests that although a lot of convenors have got problems of their own with short-time working etc., they will support us in one way or another.

‘We must have had at least ten delegations out in the last ten days — Huddersfield, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Bolton. London is being done next week. Speakers are going to meetings and getting standing ovations for what we are doing before they speak, which is very unusual. What we’re asking people to do is not just have a collection, but go on the shop floor, take collection sheets around, do a bulletin in your own factory saying what’s going on. We think that will help a hell of a lot of other people.

‘We’re saying, “Use our dispute to help build the union in your own work place, to get confidence back in your own workers.” The other thing we are asking is, “keep in mind that we may have to call on you for Grunwick style mass pickets if they try to throw us out with injunctions.”’

Inside the factory things seem to be going very well, with quite a high level of participation in the occupation.

‘Because the vote for industrial action was a split vote, in the first week there was a claim of foul from some of the workers, saying “;we don’t want a hand vote, we want a secret ballot”. For a few days people were coming in and arguing. But we soon succeeded in calming the thing down, and now there’s a general recognition that the dispute is on, that it’s a nationally official strike. You get in the region of 500 people sitting in at one time. We estimate that we’re probably getting a thousand people a day coming into the factory.

‘We have a hard core of 200 with a very hard core of about 100, who are there almost all the time. Most mornings we have 200 pickets. But in the first Monday and the first Tuesday we managed to pull together about 600 pickets — internal pickets these are, inside the gate.

‘The reason we pulled this many together was that management have got about 200 scabs — the highest management themselves, the supervisors, some ASTMS members, some APEX members and some staff who weren’t in the union.

‘They stand along the pavement for about half an hour in the morning. They are organised by the managment who continue to pay those who give their names.

‘Most of the staff are involved in the dispute, which is virtually unheard of. We’ve got senior staff reps involved in the committee. The best run staff union is TASS — they organise the foremen and chargehands. They’ve only got one or two scabs. ASTMS has got a majority involved. With the clerical workers there are problems, possibly not a majority are involved. But a lot of the girls, especially the young girls, are involved in it now.

‘The formal organisation inside the factory is the CSEU (Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions) committee. They tried to call it the strike committee, although we objected to that and said, “It’s not a strike committee. The strike committee must be open to rank and file members, not just the stewards.” The CSEU committee is made up of the works committee, and all the other reps and stewards, including those of the staff unions. We have found that these organisations are not effective. Even the works committee will agree that they’re not effective. Not that individuals are not effective. They have been in a whole number of ways. But the bodies are not functioning in the way that they should.

‘We’ve moved to the position now of having a number of separate committees — a picket committee, which should organise the picket roster and make sure there are pickets on at all times; what we call administration, printing and publicity which is for propaganda, the donations sheets and news sheets that are necessary inside the factory and outside; we’ve got a committee for the canteen to organise the food; there’s a committee for entertainment; the safety committee, for which we’re using the existing safety committee to ensure that the factory is safe. The most important committee which is beginning to function very well is the delegations committee.

‘All of these committees are open for co-option. We’ve stressed that anybody willing to be involved can come forward. We’re very aware that disputes throw up new leadership from the shop floor, and a lot of the existing stewards aren’t capable or willing to reach the level of activity and organisation necessary to win the dispute. A few of them don’t even come into the occupation. We’re all aware of it, and we’re taking steps to create the leadership we need.

‘It’s slower than I would like to see it, as an SWP member of long standing. If it was a completely SWP run strike, everything would be about a week in front of what it is now. But considering that most of them are apolitical people, they’ve not been involved in organisational politics, they’re doing very well, they’re really learning a hell of a lot. The attitudes in there are unbelievable, and the level of political discussion is very very high.

‘Most of the delegations are young workers. There’s usually one steward — sometimes two stewards — in a delegation of four. The lads involved in the delegations committee are getting stuck in and they’re learning, even if they make an occasional mistake.

Strikes and occupations always face the problems of the way in which management and the press try to put pressure on workers either directly or through their families to turn them against the struggle. Gardners’ management have ‘already tried this although in fairly hamfisted way, by sending redundancy notices through the post to about 700 workers. The workers or their families would be woken by the postman’s knock to get a recorded delivery notice telling them they were being sacked. Mick talked about the problems raised: ‘We haven’t done anything yet to get in contact with the workers hot involved in the occupation, who spend all their time outside the factory. It would be ideal if we could. But it’s, a hell of a job. We’ve talked about it. we’ve thought about it, but God knows how you go about it They live right across Manchester and right out to Leigh and Bolton.

‘We’ve got quite a lot of people involved actively, but to contact the people who aren’t coming in, we’d have to utilise a hell of a lot of people to do that, the key people that can win arguments, and we haven’t got that level of organisation, although I hope that we. would reach it. But we have been able to use management’s lists in the factory to send them all a letter.

‘All disputes are won by a minority, and sometimes a very small minority in terms of activity. I think the number we have got active is quite large.

‘We know that a number of workers may leave the factory in the course of the dispute. In 1973 the company lost 600 workers, some highly skilled, because at that time they could get jobs elsewhere. The number won’t be as high this time. But some hundreds of people could leave. We know that. We think we can’t avoid it. But the management won’t have broken the union.’

Jannie Brightman, who is herself an evening shift worker in another local factory, described an attempt to deal with one part of the problem — management’s attempts to pressurise the wives of the male workers.

‘We tried to organise the wives about a week ago with a picket. We handed out a lot of leaflets inside the factory. But the problem was we didn’t really go around talking to people and you don’t get a response just from leaflets. The leaflets were read and appreciated, and on the day a fair number of people who were in the canteen came out. It gives people something to do for a little while and some of the women did get involved.

‘Now the sort of things we are thinking of is to try and organise a social around Guy Fawkes. I also thought in response to the redundancy notices the Wives Support Group should put in a leaflet.

‘The problem is that a lot of the older trade unionists just do not understand how important it is to involve the wives. Originally the chairman had written in the Code of Practice on how to conduct the dispute “No wives, no outsiders”, but because we were around at the beginning we managed to get that changed. There are a lot of kids on the site, usually being brought in by the father, and one of the things we did argue was that a creche should be set up, that some area should be set aside, so that the husbands looking after the kids could be more active.

‘We’ve also suggested that the wives do some of the fund raising meetings — for instance, it would be quite powerful and emotive to have a wife standing up and speaking if a delegation has to go to, say, a trades council.’

Mick thinks a mistake was probably made in not warning workers about the danger of the company sending out redundancy notices in an effort to split those being sacked from those not yet due for the sack.

He says that it would have been better if all workers had been told to refuse to accept any correspondence from the company. But because the redundancies have been so arbitrarily arrived at, with workers at the factory six months being kept on, and those there 15 years being sacked, he thinks they have angered rather than divided the workforce.

‘We know that there are quite a lot of people who are frightened and given the opportunity would get out the boat. But we think that we can contain that. We think that management may attempt to hold a secret ballot. That was done at Adamsons’ Containers — but they didn’t even win the ballot there. If they did a secret ballot themselves and called it carried, that could create some problems for us. But you have to remember that it’s a nationally official strike, of all unions. It’s very difficult to break an official strike. The people who might would need powerful right-wing leadership to go back into the factory and break the strike.’

He is very optimistic about the possibilities of victory. He says the situation is quite different from that of the Massey Ferguspn occupation at Knowsley in Liverpool which collapsed in the early summer.

‘This isn’t a closure. Knowsley was, and it’s very difficult to beat a closure. What is more, in that case part of the problem was that other factories were taking their work and let them down.’

He believes the dispute may drag on for months: But if the level of funds raised by the delegations going round the country is high enough he believes that there is a good chance of victory.

Last updated on 18 March 2010