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International Socialism, December 1974


Malcolm Marks

The Battle at Fisher Bendix


From International Socialism, No.73, December 1974, pp.11-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE FISHER BENDIX factory had been built with Government money to employ a work-force of 3,500, although it never took on more than 2,500. By May 1971, when it became part of the Thorn Group, redundancy and productivity deals had reduced the workforce to about 1,000, mostly engaged in producing washing machines.

The Thorn takeover had not been inspired by the desire to give employment to the workers on Kirkby Industrial Estate. Quite the reverse. Plans were revealed to the stewards a week after taking over the factory: washing-machine production was to be discontinued at Fisher Bendix, with 505 redundancies.

Up until this time the organisation in Fisher’s had been unable to fight sackings. Productivity deals had been signed and sackings accepted. However, the situation in West Lancashire was far from rosy for those looking for another job. Unemployment in Kirkby was running at 5.7 per cent compared to the national average of 3.4 per cent and in Kirkby itself youth unemployment was estimated at 30 per cent. Lybro had closed down throwing 288 out of work, as had British Trailers with 50. Partial closure had lead to the sacking of 240 at Birdseye, 65 at Dublilier Condensers and 40 at William Harvey. All of these were on just one industrial estate. In the area Lucas had sacked 900, Cammell-Laird 400, Silcock and Lever 450, Cadbury-Schweppes 1,200, Electro Hydraulics 400 and Bear Brand 560. (Socialist Worker, 3 July 1971).

The management refused to negotiate over the redundancies and it was certainly no accident that of 14 stewards on the negotiating committee representing the white-collar unions 12 received notice, as did a majority of the manual stewards. The fact was that management had no intention of stopping the production of washing machines. Negotiations had been going on for over a year with a Spanish firm to take over the whole of Thorns production of tumble-dryers, an arrangement which, given the state of collective bargaining in Spain, could hardly fail to appeal to the profit-conscious capitalist.

The unions responded to the threatened sackings with a nine-week long strike which succeeded in staving off the redundancies for a time. The success of the strike, however, was more than simply postponing sackings, as Jack Spriggs the AUEW Convenor wrote at the time:

Most of us knew that the matter would not end there. We had to look for new ways of fighting redundancy. The strike, however, made all the difference. The men and women in the factory could see that redundancies were not inevitable and could be fought, and fought successfully. (Kirkby Resistance, January 1972)

The management made it quite clear that they intended to dose the whole factory by May 1972, and as the days were crossed off the calendar the leading members of the unions discussed among themselves the best ways of fighting the inevitable closure. That summer saw the start of a major movement against redundancies, spearheaded by the UCS workers. Whatever we may think of the conduct of the fight at UCS, it acted as a beacon for workers facing redundancies everywhere.

In West Lancashire a large number of well attended ‘Support UCS’ meetings had been held (largely on the initiative of the International Socialists) which had spread the idea of a fight back against redundancy and unemployment and a campaign of marches and demonstrations was beginning to build up in the area. It was against this background that the militants at Fisher Bendix discussed their response to the management offensive they knew was coming. Among the leading stewards and militants, the relative merits of a sit-in and work-in were discussed. A delegation was sent to UCS and shown round the yards. They returned convinced as to the UCS tactics. A leading militant recalled: ‘A number of people went round the yards, discussed the matter with a number of people there. Well, an actual work-in that took place at UCS was hardly a viable proposition at Fisher Bendix. We didn’t consider that we should continue to produce goods which would not benefit us directly, except Thorn, so we weren’t prepared to do that.’ A consensus of opinion gradually worked itself out among the stewards and membership: a work-in was OK for a public relations job like UCS but it would not do for a serious fight.

Links were established with other factories in the Thorn empire and a combine committee gradually came into being and links were established with local factories and building sites. Plans were laid for preventing the movement of machinery and for future blacking, while a 50p weekly levy from each member of the workforce built up a fighting fund.

As the management deadline for the first redundancies in January 1972 drew nearer, feeling hardened in the factory. Everyone was working flat out, producing masses of material, but somehow hardly any of it got loaded for moving out. For the last two weeks before January 3rd nothing at all was moved out of the plant. Management became more and more insistent that the factory would have to close. At one meeting they stated that they intended to start dismantling the machinery; a steward handed them a spanner with the words’ ‘Well, get on with it then’. That, of course, was not quite what the management had in mind.

The management kept on pushing, and on 5 January matters came to a head. The senior stewards were negotiating with the management when a group of militants met to organise a demonstration. They did not specifically plan an occupation to start that day (in fact, they later found out that the convenor had rejected the idea of occupying that day ... but by them it was too late). About 14 people got together and marched off towards the administration block, their numbers growing all the time.

The Take-over

A militant takes up the story:

We got inside and marched up the stairs towards where we believed the board room was. We turned right and ended up in a dining room, the bosses dining room. We had made a terrible mistake. The boardroom was in the opposite direction. We had never been in the boardroom and we did not know where it was. So we found ourselves in an elaborate dining room with silver goblets and everything. Imagine the incredible frustration because the militants, the leaders, had gone the wrong way, and now they had this mass coming behind them. We had to get back through them in the opposite direction. It was all big squabbles with people falling down stairs and everything, but we managed to get outside the boardroom.

There was this big oak-panelled door, a really magnificent, majestic door, and behind it all the decisions are made and your livelihood is being discussed. Outside there was in incredible noise with about 100 or 200 people yelling and shouting”Hang the boss!” and things like that. It must have been quite frightening for them. The noise was frightening, deafening and people were banging on the door. Then someone threw a chair and the door burst open and the chair slid across the room. Silence, complete silence, in there and then one brave move, somebody stood up and closed the door. It was immediately kicked open again and there were more shouts.

Then all of a sudden it went very quiet. We had reached the turning point and we didn’t know exactly what to do. Should we go in there? It was a really incredible thing to overcome going into the boardroom. A fellow in the Communist Party and me were both very close to the door and we were both looking at each other and saying: “Are we gonna go in? Are we gonna go in?” We were both nodding to each other, but no-one really wanted to be the first to go in. We were getting closer to the door and other people were starting to say that we had made our demonstration now and we shouldn’t do anything more. It was really a turning point. Just then I pushed the CP member and he went in, and once he was in, we were all in. We just marched in.

It was not a very big boardroom but there was this massive oak table with everyone sitting round it completely silent. The management were looking extremely worried and the stewards were just looking rather pleased with themselves. We completely surrounded everybody, you couldn’t get any more people in and the door was nearly off its hinges. We were swelling out of the room and people were standing on chairs.

No one spoke for a few moments and then the convenor said: “I think at this stage I had better give you a period of time to reconsider your closure plans. I will give you no more than ten minutes.”

They left the room and we shouted and cheered and asked the convenor exactly What had been going on. He said that he didn’t think there was much chance of them reversing their decision but that we were in a position of strength now that we were all in the boardroom.

They came back some ten minutes later and said that they were very sorry but they could not reverse the decision on the closure plans. Then someone dropped the keys on the table. On our way through we had gone into the gate-house and asked for the master-keys to the factory. (Incidentally, we had dropped them on the table) and said: “Well, this factory is under occupation. Out!” We gave them five minutes to get out.

You should have seen their faces, they were white. Five minutes to get out of the factory! It was said in very cold calculating terms: “Beyond five minutes we cannot guarantee your safety”. We were not really violent, but we were speaking from a position of strength and we knew it. They had never come across anything like this. This was their boardroom where they had little drinkies and things and discussed problems. The atmosphere was unbelievable. I have never come across such a feeling of strength and safety and unity of purpose.

The senior management stood up and said that they regretted the decision we had made. We replied that we regretted the decision that they had made and we felt that we could do without them. They started to leave in a very hurried fashion, picking up their briefcases and things and got virtually out of the door. We told them they had only got two minutes left, so they moved pretty quick.

Just at that moment a gentleman came in who was a union solicitor and ex-Lord Mayor of Liverpool. He had been making attempts to stop the factory closure. He was a real right-wing professional. He tried to calm the whole situation down. It didn’t make a blind bit of difference but he tried to keep everything calm. It looked terrible ... there was too much militancy. He got the stewards and management together again but by then we had decided that as far as we were concerned the occupation was on and we were not having any more chat.

We used the telephones in the boardroom there and then to ring up the press and the television to come down and arranged to have a mass meeting in the canteen at one o’clock to explain the whole situation to the rest of the work force.

At the mass meeting the solicitor again spoke, saying that he had talked to management and they had offered that they would not close down the factory but that the redundancies which had already been declared would have to stand. That was an offer of nothing and it was rejected immediately. Jack Spriggs, the Convenor then spoke in favour of continuing the occupation. He replied to Councillor Levin:

“We cannot be sure who will get the advantage if we accept this offer. But if you continue with the occupation we will win ... We have a golden opportunity to lead Merseyside in a fight against big business. Their whole aim is to make money at the expense of the working class ... Merseyside is waiting for a lead. We have got to have the responsibility to take it ...”

He argued the case for an occupation in clear terms:

“It’s far better to occupy, to control from within rather than stand out in the rain and cold, the fog and the wind, trying to stop scab vehicles ...”

The factory was in a state of siege. Everybody was doing something. There were stacks of trucks running round all over the place with three ton tools and things, piling them up against the gates. People were putting bars on the gates. We started to print various leaflets in the design office. We arranged various shifts so that the factory was manned twenty-four hours a day. And we brought out the fire hoses and laid them out impressively.

The convenor and a couple of senior stewards went down to the local police station and explained that the factory had been taken over by the workers. The senior police chief was a little bit strutty and said: “Well, we are going to have to remove you.” The stewards replied: “Well, we wouldn’t advise that. You would require a considerable force to do so and, you know, a number of your constables are sure to get extremely wet” and so forth. We explained that we had the hoses out and we were prepared to defend the factory. He probably thought that there was nothing he could do about it and there were never any attempts to throw us out.

The workers were in a very strong bargaining position. Apart from the factory building itself they had £200,000 worth of finished radiators, £50,000 in storage heaters, a dozen new articulated wagons and stacker trucks, as well as £2 million worth of plant.

The gatehouse and administration block were guarded and the spares and service depot a mile away was occupied. The occupiers were divided into four six-hour shifts to ensure 24-hour control of the premises. The day after the occupation began the shop stewards committee met with representatives of the staff workers and formed committees for safety, security, propaganda, discipline, welfare, finances and press, co-opting members where necessary.

No Concessions to ‘Respectability’

ONCE established, the occupation was conducted with vigour and militancy. At one stage a minor crisis occurred over fuel supplies. The power was still on and the occupation had full lighting and heating, but the fuel for the boiler house was running short.

We got in touch with the senior management at Thorn’s and told them that the fuel was running extremely low and that we required more fuel. Of course they said “No chance”. They would have nothing to do with us. So we contacted them again and explained the situation in more detail. We said this time: “This is quite serious, not from our point of view but from yours. We will have to keep ourselves warm, even in the event of using some of the doors and equipment.” In other words, we said that we would light fires under the presses and things like that. And they got the message, because that very night – how many thousand tons of bloody fuel came? I would never know. It had never happened before, even in full production when we needed it. We didn’t know where to put it. They must have miscalculated, because there were lorry loads coming, one after another. Fuel – we had enough fuel for an oil well.

Efforts were made to keep the maximum number of people involved in the running of the occupation. The stewards assumed that the occupation would last a considerable length of time and arrangements were made for activities to sustain interest. Entertainments were planned, but in addition lecturers were invited to discuss various social problems and other areas of interest. The factory equipment was to be used to run schools in welding, turning and milling run by the skilled men in the factory.

It had been recognised before the occupation that it was important to have the wives involved. The wives were under a lot of pressure, isolated at home, with only the strike pay to live on and the kids getting free meals at school, and efforts were made to draw them into the occupation. One of the wives, Ann Marks, wrote in the Kirkby Resistance that:

“It is essential that we attend as many meetings as we can and know what is going on. I know this is often difficult having to take the youngest with you and getting back for school etc. – but it is well worth the effort – to see the fight in action and know that you are involved ... If other wives are as committed as I am in ensuring that our husbands will win this fight for the right to work, then WE MUST FIGHT WITH THEM. The workers of Fisher Bendix are determined to challenge the ‘Industrial Assassin’, but they need OUR support. We must protect our families from a demoralising existence on the dole.”

Efforts were made to encourage wives and families to come to the occupation and to understand the issues involved, although some were not too successful. The convenor organised an ‘Open Day’ to which many wives came. It turned out to be a huge jamboree for all the left wing Labour MP’s in the area. A woman militant remarked afterwards: “It was not an open day for the wives, we sat there for three hours of speeches trying to keep our kids quiet, while every Labour MP in the district made sure of his re-election.”

The white collar unions had played no part in the earlier nine week strike, but they were all involved in the occupation: Many of the typists and clerks and so on actually joined in, although they did not take a leading role. I’ll describe one. There was a girl, a typist, who was involved in the occupation, and I happened to talk to her one day. I said, “Do you think we are going to be successful?” And she said: “Well, when I am at home I don’t think so, but when I am here I think we are.” If it had been a strike she would never have been on the picket line and she would have had no real contact. The fact that we were all together and we made decisions together was extremely beneficial to solidarity and gave us a real sense of purpose.

Harold Wilson Intervenes

KEEPING the workforce together inside the factory, maintaining morale and stopping the trickle to other employment was one important task facing the leadership. The other was extending the scope of the dispute. From the start it had been made clear that the fight was not going to be fought along exclusive ‘special case’ lines but turned outward into a general fight against redundancy. This meant an active campaign in the labour movement for money, blacking and solidarity with no concessions to the ‘respectability’ of discussing productivity records and willingness to sign further agreements which characterised UCS.

The Thorn Combine Committee grouped about 20 factories at this time, although, having been set up only recently there was a bit of ‘lip service’ involved. It put what weight it could behind the fight, as did numerous other Trade Union bodies. Money was collected all over the country, and some was still arriving twelve months after the end of the occupation! Blacking was even more important and the Joint Shop Stewards Committee published and circulated a call for blacking which listed every firm in the Thorn empire. The crucial response was from the docks, which had played a crucial role in winning the earlier strike. This time all Thorn products were blacked coming in and going out. Thorn was faced with a simple choice: solve the Fisher Bendix problem .or have all your production tied up.

The blacking appeal had stressed that the Fisher Bendix fight was a battle for the right to work and it concerned the whole labour movement. Support in the Merseyside area began to build up. There was preparation in Liverpool for a one day stoppage in support and the issue looked like snowballing into a general fight against redundancies:

‘It certainly inspired incredible feeling at Merseyside. In fact in one local factory just after the occupation the management declared a few people redundant. The stewards said: “If you carry out this plan we will do a Fisher Bendix on you.” It became the expression to use.’

The determination of the work force, the threat of paralysis through effective blacking, and the growing solidarity movement, frightened a lot of people. One of the people it frightened was Sir Jules Thorn, who was trying to close a factory and found that his whole vast firm was in danger from blacking and from a growing combine committee. Settling the Fisher Bendix issue became his first priority.

Another person who was frightened was Harold Wilson, then Leader of the Opposition who saw, on his very doorstep, a growing opposition to the Tories which looked ready to fight with more than speeches. It was his shrewd intervention which got Thorn off the hook, ended the dispute, and ‘saved’ the work force, by the end of the fourth week.

Wilson produced a certain Mr King from a company called International Property Developers, who was prepared to take over the company. Thorn was so eager to get rid of Fisher Bendix that he was prepared to give IPD a guarantee of 9 per cent profit for a ‘transition period’ of nine months.

In three days of negotiations chaired by Harold Wilson an agreement was reached. In many ways this was a victory as the existing work force was retained and a guarantee given that the factory would be kept open at least until the end of 1973. The final agreement specified that ‘a joint management/union working party will be set up to examine how productivity in the factory can be improved’ and made certain other proposals for reviewing manning levels etc. Round One was over and a stay of execution had been achieved.

The Lessons

THE occupation had been one of the best fought of its kind, but a participant suggests that, in the light of experience, it could have been run better:

‘The majority of the occupation committee were shop stewards and we should have had a lot more involvement. Everything at Fisher Bendix is nearly always done by the shop stewards. This is a real fault. We were getting groups down, the canteen was open, there were free meals, we had exhibitions, everything. People were coming in for the sheer entertainment, but if you looked at it in its entirety there was still a lack of real involvement. In many respects what took place was that the shop stewards took over the administration building and replaced the management. We should have involved a lot more people. I think we could have gone a lot further then and we would have remained a lot more united.’

The Convenor, in particular, became somewhat isolated from the shop floor and it seems that Wilson made a real effort to win him over to the final compromise on a personal basis. One militant remarked:

‘Although many people saw the danger of Wilson, I suppose Spriggs thought that he could get one over on Wilson. Well, Wilson is as long in the tooth if not longer than Spriggs. He is a very clever man-. He can sit up for as long as anyone else negotiating, and he can come out on top even if you believe at the end of it that you have got the best deal. We saw the danger and indeed it was mentioned to the Convenor, but he went ahead anyway.’

The strike and the occupation had developed the organisation inside Fisher Bendix:

‘The 9 week strike was really the turning point for me, the fact that we were taking a step forward. That had never happened before. When redundancies were announced there were squabbles. People were even going to the Personnel and asking: “How long have I been here? How long has he been here? ... Listen, I bought my first cup of tea before you, so you are gonna go ... “It was a terrible thing, but people never really saw above the horizon. It was all a question of “Well, if the management say we have got to go, we have got to go. Now, the best way to do it is: how much can we get off them. Who has got to go first? Last in, first out.” There has been a change in consciousness of the people inside the factory, although it has degenerated since the actual occupation, because we aspired to such great heights.’

During the occupation itself, during which supporters were allowed into the factory, there was a considerable political discussion. Copies of the Daily Mirror were torn up in disgust at their lying reporting of the dispute and the socialist press was widely read.

After the settlement, of course, many people lost this new consciousness, but the organisation remained fairly strong. Within 12 months of the occupation Fisher Bendix had won a 35-hour week, a pound an hour, and an extra weeks holiday. The agreement was not without disadvantages, but it was much more than many factories could claim out of the 1972 Engineering Pay Claim.

The new management had no intention of making a long-term proposition out of their factory. The victory in Round One had delayed things but it had not solved the problem. Not one penny was invested in new plant or machinery. The land next door, which IPD had got as part of the deal, was profitably ‘developed’. Profitably enough to give King a new Rolls, a Jaguar, a large house, and still leave some over for him to sponsor a golf tournament. Part of the factory, which had been purpose built for engineering, was turned over to the production of ... orange juice.

By August 1974, King was looking for an escape route, and Round Two was under way. King claimed that he was unable to keep the factory going unless he got £1 million from the Government. When this was refused he issued redundancy notices to the workers and wrote to Wedgwood Benn demanding that the government bail the firm out. The response from the work force was less militant this time, and negotiations led to the withdrawal of the redundancy notices and their replacement by notice of ‘temporary lay-off’.

On 10 July IPD announced that a receiver had been appointed. He was prepared to guarantee only 450 jobs out of 1,200. A mass meeting on 12 July voted to expel the receiver and to institute a work-in.

Round Two has important differences from Round One. The most obvious is that there was a work-in rather than a sit-in, which does represent a substantial retreat. £2.5 million worth press tools for British Leyland remained behind the welded gates but was never pushed as a bargaining counter. The response this time from the work force has been far less united than on previous occasions, and with production continuing it is difficult to see how this could have been changed. In this work-in, mass meetings were postponed so that stewards could travel to London to negotiate – a clear indication of the priorities of the local leadership. On the positive side, the changed political climate – with a Labour Government verbally committed to nationalisation instead of Ted Heath in his ‘lame duck’ phase – means that the demand for nationalisation could have been raised much more clearly and support generated at rank and file level.

The balance of the situation is best summed up by the militant from whom we have quoted at length:

‘The new crisis produced a belated reaction from Jack Spriggs. At the mass meeting he said the situation showed “the capitalist system in its worst form.” He spoke about “rats crawling out of their holes”. We threw out one lot – the liquidators. But King still comes and goes as he pleases. But we are fighting, though with grim determination rather than the fantastic enthusiasm of last time.

‘There is a general reluctance to work for the liquidator. People are saying there are plenty of radiatiors in stock and once we’ve sold them we will produce more. In short, there is a lack of unifying purpose in the occupation that springs from the lack of control over events by the shop floor.

‘There was due to be another mass meeting this week. But it was postponed because the senior stewards went to London to meet Industry Minister Wedgwood Benn. Surprisingly, this meeting can be used to point the way forward. The only real solution for us now is to wage a political campaign to force the nationalisation of the factory under our control.

‘There can be no more gimmicky solutions worked out with the Labour Party leaders, no talk of co-operatives or new owners. That could only lead to disaster. There must be nationalisation, with no loss of jobs and conditions and firmly under workers’ control.’


IN THE event the convenor and stewards have fallen for the co-operative as a solution. The government have injected £4.9 million amidst a fanfare of publicity in the millionaire press which posed it as a triumph for workers’ control.

In reality, nearly half the money will be used to pay off King’s debts, leaving just 2.9 million to get the company going. It will not be enough to re-tool and re-equip the plant. The plant is losing approximately £30,000 a week and under the co-operative agreement this weekly loss has to eventually come out of the grant, if the work force cannot cut back this figure.

The co-operative has solved the receiver’s problems. It also saves the government redundancy and social security pay. It leaves Harold King to make a killing on adjacent land speculation, while all his debts are paid off. Worse still, it leaves the workers with the responsibility of making the place a going concern. Under the terms of the recent feasibility report the final irony could be the stewards actually planning some redundancies! It certainly will be the stewards who urge static wages and higher productivity.

This is the true meaning of supposedly radical co-operative solutions. It is a means of transferring responsibility and leaving the workers to carry the can.

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