Today in London industrial history, 1975: Workers occupy Crosfield Electronics, Holloway

At clocking out time on March 6, 1975, 300 workers at Crosfields Electronics factory in Archway were told they were to be laid off as from that moment. Some, thinking there was no alternative, accepted the redundancy money. Others, however, decided not to take this kind of treatment and occupied part of the factory on March 26. They began a sit-in which they kept up, 24 hours a day, for the next two months.

Crosfield Electronics was a British electronics imaging company founded to produce process imaging devices for the print industry. The firm was notable for its innovation in colour drum scanning in its Scanatron (1959) and later Magnascan (1969) products.

Crosfields produced photo-scanning equipment for the print and newspaper industry, developing the first digital scanner for the printing industry in the mid 1970s. They had a factory at 766 Holloway Road, on the corner of Elthorne Road (possibly now where Whittington House is today?).

The company was bought in September 1974 by the De La Rue Group – a big multi-national company. The workers were assured there would be no redundancies, But De La Rue had decided to run down and close Holloway Road and transfer production to its Westward factory in Peterborough. The 300 redundancies might only be the first step in a gradual shutdown of De La Rue’s London Workings.

In March 1975, 300 employees at Crosfields Holloway plant were informed that they were to be made redundant in accordance with management’s decision to transfer production to the company’s factory at Peterborough.

On March 26th, some of the workers began a a sit-in with the intention of saving their jobs. The fitting-shop building which was to be imminently closed, was occupied. Workers from other parts of the factory assisted in barricading the building. Around 30-40 workers were involved, a mix of male and female employees. They occupied the whole workplace, some bringing their children into the factory during the occupation.

Many of the workers involved had previously experienced similar redundancy – some three, four or even five times.

1970s Britain saw a large wave of factory occupations by workers, as restructuring and decline caused massive upheaval, threats of closure and management attacks on wages and conditions.

The sit-in lasted 49 days.

These were far from the first jobs in North London lost in this way. 30,000 Jobs, for instance, were lost in Islington alone between 1966 and 1971. The government was offering subsidies to firms which moved development areas outside the capital, and there had been an enormous flight of industrial capital from London. At the same time there were few major developments in manufacturing in London, and no plans for any.

For many who lost skilled industrial jobs, they were unlikely to find new ones, and ended up seeking lower paid work in the service industries.

The attempt to close down production at the Holloway plant should be seen in context of two growing trends at the time: a shrinking of the UK manufacturing sector, partly as a result of restructuring and ‘rationalisation (notably after takeovers of smaller firms by larger, often transnational companies)  – and a particular move to close down factories in London and move production elsewhere, often to cut wages and costs.

There was a notable rising rate of redundancy in London, and new manufacturing industry was not opening up to replace pants that were closing. What happened to Crosfields’ workers illustrated vividly the fate of employees at many smaller firms which were subjected to ’rationalisation’ when incorporated into bigger companies by take-overs and mergers. Many workers were faced with the choice of redundancy or moving out of London to keep their jobs.

The question was asked at the time, Why was this plant being shut down? Was it because of economic difficulties? Was it because of lack of orders? Was it because of ’cash flow’ problems? Had Crosfields been a bad acquisition for De La Rue? Or was it because Crosfields had, over a period of time, become a highly organised factory, with high trade union membership…?

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell interviewed some of the twelve women involved in occupying Crosfields about their fight:

“How many women worked here?
— About 90, in the whole factory.
How many are here now?
—There’s only about 12 of us fighting it. Occupying. What were your exact jobs?
— We were classed as wirewomen – wiring is when you use a soldering iron and make up chassis.
Have many of the other women been able to get jobs?
— No, there’s very few of them working. I meet them outside walking around.
The ones who have got work, where have they got it?
— They’ve not got it in wiring, there’s nothing like that left in London, you have to go away outside.
Are you all from Islington?
—Well, I’m from Islington, most are Islington or area.
—One woman who left’s working in a cafe round the corner. She was a deputy supervisor —wages must have been £75 a week. She’s lucky if she’s getting £30 now. I wouldn’t let the governors see me come down in the world like that.
—Some are working in the hospitals and taking home less than £20. Some are charwomen.
Have any of the women moved to Peterborough?
—No, there were only about ten out of 300 offered jobs in Peter­ borough. That was a lot of rubbish, them saying it.
—Really they just weren’t interested, they just wanted to get rid of all this building.
You’d had a few fights here to get your wages up before the occupation, hadn’t you?
— We had good money here because we had a good union and they fought and got us good rates. I think we were the best paid factory for this area round here. And listen, we’d have been up to equal pay in April, because that’s when it was to start from. But you see they have got us out, they gave us redundancy in March.
When you first had notice of redundancy, what did you feel?
—Oh, it was terrible, terrible. That’s the reason why a lot of the women went, you know, they were getting harrassed, they were getting a bit pressurised to get out.
—I think there was a lot of confusion because you must remember this came right out of the blue, nobody was expecting it.
—At the end of the day, they got you into a meeting and then they sent the line managers to tell the workers they were going to be redundant because the factory was closing down. It was shocking. People cried.
Did you spend a long time casting round to think what to do?
—There was no time
—it was late on when we were told, everyone was clearing the shop. There was a bit of bribery if you went straight away.

—I believe a lot of the managers were getting bonuses to get the shop cleared quickly.
Did any of you have families who reckoned you shouldn’t fight it, that it was a losing battle?
— No – my husband asked me two questions; ‘Had you a good job there?’ I said I had a smashing job. He said, ‘Were you happy?’ I said I was happy in that job. He said, ‘Then it’s worth fighting for.
So get back there.’
What about problems with kids and childminding now?
—My children are at school.
—Mine are grown up.
—Those with younger children used to pay to have them minded, it used to come from the woman’s wage. Now they can’t afford it. They find it hard to get down here and hard to manage.
When some of you decided to stay and fight, did you feel isolated?
—No. It doesn’t worry us. They call us things. ‘Militants.’
—They were traitors to walk away, those who left. Because we all voted not to Accept redundancies.
Do you get criticised by neighbours and friends?
—Yes, I was called a militant.
—No, my personal friends say ‘I agree with you.’
What about the women who left?
— I don’t see them. Even if I see them, love, I don’t speak to them, I hold my head up high.
Some women must be really pleased you’re fighting, thinking about their own jobs?
—Aye, I think it’s good. I feel happy fighting it. I think I would have
been miserable if I’d walked away with my tail between my legs.
How long do you think you can hold out for?
—Don’t know. If it takes a year, a year and a half.
—You see, if you don’t fight to stop them taking the jobs out of
London, they keep doing it. So you have to do something to draw the line somewhere.
What are you surviving on economically?
—The union is giving us some. £5.
—When donations come round he gives us some money.
Why can’t you get the rest made up by Social Security?
—See, you can’t —before you get redundancy money you must lodge your cards with the Labour Exchange. The governors have put the stop around – even the married men can’t get any for their wives and children.
—Crosfields slipped the word down to the SS offices. So to anyone who comes along they say you must lodge your cards, you’ve got to take your redundancy slips to show that you’ve accepted redun­dancy —so that would mean your fight was finished.
How do you manage on £5 a week?
—When I was working I saved. We just have to use our savings. —We have to cut down too.
Do you think you’ve got stronger and more confident as women since you’ve been occupying?
—See, I wear trousers to work now. I feel I’m one of the boys now. —Aye, we’re all pals now. We’ve got a great friendship, that we never had when we were working, with the women and the fellows. We never spoke to anyone much before, just saw them.
How do you think this affects your husbands?
—My husband says he saw more of me when I was working, because we come here evenings now.
Who makes the tea and the meals?
—The women all do a bit. The women have been doing most of the cooking though. We’re always washing dishes and cleaning up.
—We’ve tried to get the men to do it too.
[During the occupation a large notice appeared on the wall, stating: ‘If you have some very good reason for not washing your cup, you may leave it here.’]
What do you see as exactly what you’re fighting for?
—Our jobs back. If I wanted redundancy money I’d have walked away at the beginning. We all want our jobs back, there’s plenty of work —I was in the middle of a job.
—I think it’s better to have your job than to be on the dole.
Will you all stay as long as the occupation lasts?
—Yes, we can’t back out now.
—We must stay till the end.
—And just think how these governors have been dirty, in a lot of ways. They’ve probably blacked us. 
What will you do if you finally get defeated?
—We don’t think of defeat, we’re hoping to win.
—We’re talking about a victory party —I’m going to buy a new
dress for that. Why not, I’m no defeatist.
—One man says to me why don’t you take your money and go? But we’re hoping to win.
(Spare Rib, no 37 (July, 1975), pp. 9-10., interview by Lynne Segal and Alison Fell)

The workers raised a weekly levy to supply food to those in occupation. The dispute was well supported by fellow trade unionists. Lorry drivers refused to cross picket lines. Electricians refused to disconnect the electricity supply.

Crosfields occupiers

Deputations to MP’s, ministers and councillors proved that these merely passed the buck from one to the other, and did nothing to help the occupiers save their jobs. The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) had a meeting with the parties in April, but no agreement was reached. Instead, the police force were used to escort finished products out of the factory in the middle of the night, and social security benefit was denied to workers’ families. The firm launched tortuous legal processes to serve writs on those in occupation.

On May 5th the employers secured a High Court originating summons claiming possession under RSC Order 113. The Summons was heard on May 9th, just four days later. A Possession Order was granted to the company, delayed only slightly by an appeal on a question of law regarding the way the summonses had been served. However, the consummate legal servant of capital, Lord Denning, ruled that there was nothing wrong with the methods used.

De La Rue used the added leverage of threatening to sub-contract out its sheet metal production, laying off more Crosfields workers.

The Crosfields workers were faced with the agonising decision of whether to attempt to remain in defiance of the court order, or to cut their losses and leave. In the end, they decided on the latter, in the face of the strength of the state forces employed against them, and because of insufficient time to rally support from wider sections of the trade union movement.

After long negotiations, shop stewards finally put it to a factory meeting that morning, that the seven reinstatements and the increased redundancy pay offer they had wrung out of the management should be accepted. The vote carried it.

Lynne Segal and Alison Fell went back to find out what the women occupiers felt:

“—They agreed to take seven, all together, back – one wireman, an electrical inspector, one labourer, two wirewomen, a plumber. What about the new redundancy offer?
An extra £175 for every year worked. It’s all right for the people who’ve been here 10 or 15 years, not the others.
How do you feel about it all?
—It’s sad, we could cry.
—We’re all sad, because there are people who fought who won’t be getting any vacancies. The convenor’s not getting reinstated. It wasn’t money we were fighting for, it was our jobs.
Do you think it’s all been worthwhile?
—Yes! We put up a good fight. We nearly bankrupted him!

—We occupied this building for eight weeks — tell me how many could do that?
Do you think you’ll be out of work for a long time?
—Yes
—I’ll try one of these government re-training things for redundant women. Huh! Fourteen pounds a week.
Will you see each other again?
Of course we will. We’ve got all the names and addresses.”

While many factory occupations in the 1970s were successful, the sheer economic power of De La Rue robbed the workers of what security they had won – they lost the fight for their jobs. As Spare Rib put it: “Despite support from other sections of the factory and from the Labour movement locally, the odds were still completely unequal; De La Rue’s cynicism in all these doings was bulwarked by the profits and power of its status as a multi-national combine, and by the laws of the land. The workers were negotiating merely with their whole lives and futures.”

De la Rue was eventually taken over by Fujifilm Japan and named Fujifilm Electronic Imaging, now FFEI Ltd. following a management buy-out in 2008.

Today in London workers’ history, 1972: Briant printing works occupied to prevent closure

Who needs bosses? Workers could take over running things themselves tomorrow without even a hiccup…

The firm of Briant Colour Printing was established in the 19th century, owned by the Kitson  family. In 1968 the firm moved to a brand new custom built factory at 651-87 Old Kent Road, (close to the junction of modern Hyndman Street).

Briant’s Workforce was unionised and highly organised: they had fought for, and won, some of the best pay and conditions going, including getting Mayday off as a paid holiday in the late 1960s. Apparently the workers staged a 24 hour occupation in April 1971 to prevent the management sacking 60 staff, resulting in management postponing redundancies. They also had a long tradition of supporting other workers in struggle… including striking against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, and supporting striking miners and dockers in 1972.

Owner Timothy Kitson was a tory MP in 1970s, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minster Ted Heath). The hardcore autonomy of the Bryant workers was not just irritating to the firm’s management, it was personally embarrassing for him… Shame.

The Kitsons sold Briant in early 1972, to Derek Syder, with James McNaughton, of paper merchants Robert Horne (Briant’s biggest creditor) installed as Managing Director.

On June 21 1972, 150 or so workers were told the firm was going into liquidation. At a mass meeting same day, the workers decided to fight the closure: they secured the place, threw out the liquidating directors & declared a work-in to save their jobs. (One manager caught inside was not allowed to leave till money owed to the social club from management was paid up!)

The Times (24 June 1972) reported: ‘About 150 employees started the ‘work-in’ at the Briant Colour Printing company, Peckham on Wednesday after the management announced the company was going into voluntary liquidation… the workers yesterday showed their determination to stay by moving in bedding and food’.

The workers then ran the factory themselves, (until June 1973, when a new owner reopened it)  a going concern during the work-in, during which they attempted to pay themselves a wage (see below in the attached account for the limitations on this). During the occupation, they published their own paper, the BCP Workers News, on 24 hr rosters, with a 50 strong security crew on a 3 shift system. They managing the plant, sorted out supplies of paper and ink etc, organised liaison with clients… A Management committee was created from the workforce, also a procurement committee. They had local support – “A local militant OAP comes in to make the tea”. The work-in was reasonably successful: they had some problems paying bills, but no services were cut off.

The occupiers barred access to the plant to prospective buyers arranged by liquidators; any sale was therefore presented. Various legal stratagems to remove the occupiers were successfully resisted. A court later heard: ‘Possession orders were obtained against seven defendants in January 1973, but they were not enforced because the liquidator feared that the enforcement would result in an industrial fracas and the destruction of valuable machinery’ (Times 28 March 1977) .

Under occupation, Bryant printed lots of material for other disputes, including the Pentonville 5, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation… In July ’72, after the Pentonville 5 had just been jailed, they led first march to Pentonville Prison, diverting a march of their own to Clerkenwell Green. their staunch support of other workers was returned in kind with mass support for the work-in by other sectors.

The occupation was served with 1000s of writs and injunctions – all of which were burned outside the law courts on Bryant demos! A paper plant in Tower Bridge Road, owned by the Robert Horne group of companies was successfully picketed by the occupiers, for a month. Their logic was that Robert Horne – supplier of paper to Briant’s – was the chief creditor and was responsible for sending the firm into liquidation ‘The picket was very effective, reducing the flow of lorries into the factory, usually 40 to 50 a day, to one or two whose drivers were willing to cross the picket line’ (Times, 14 July 1972, 10 August 1972). These pickets led to the first deployment of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group.

There were even discussions with a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, to agree a deal that would retain some kind of workers’ control: ‘The work-in has broken new ground by carrying into private enterprise the political basis on which the factory has been run by joint union branches. The plant will be run by a ‘management committee’ composed of representatives from three printing unions – the National Society of Operative Printers (Natsopa), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) and the National Graphical Association (NGA) – and managers put in by the new owner’ (Times, 14.12.1972)

This deal fell through and in May 1973 the company was bought by Peter Bentley, although it seems not everybody kept their job. Workers resumed normal capitalist operations on 3rd July 1973. But this was a false dawn – on 16 November 1973 the new owner closed the factory, sending the 50 remaining employees redundancy notices (some turned up for work to find themselves locked out), and installing security guards and alsatians to keep workers out.

We’re not sure if that was the end of the story – transpontine came across a reference to ‘vicious attacks [by police] on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974’ (this could be an error in dating by the author, or suggesting workers carried on the struggle after the lockout).

However, even if the occupation thus eventually failed to fulfil its original goal, to save jobs, it was seen by its participants as a success, partly because in the short term it did save jobs, and partly, and more importantly, because the participants felt that their taking action was an important element in the wider struggle against redundancies as well as an exciting learning process for themselves..

In 2002 there was a 30-year reunion in Clerkenwell for people who took part. Bill Freeman, a Communist Party activist, was a prominent figure during the occupation as ‘Father of the Chapel’ (the name for a printing shop steward).

Thanks as ever to Transpontine, the top South East London blogzine, in which a brief description of the occupation can be found…

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The following account and analysis of the Briant Colour Printing occupation mainly rests on a 62 pages long chapter in a Danish book on strikes and factory occupations in Great Britain during the early 1970s (Knudsen and Sandahl, 1974), a chapter which primarily builds on nine interviews conducted with BCP workers in January 1973 and information obtained from ‘BCP News’, the newsletter that was published by the occupiers.

An outline of the occupation

When it was announced that BCP was to be closed the notice given to the 130 employees was extremely short. On 21 June 1972 the shop stewards (or fathers or mothers of the chapel as they were termed in accordance with traditions in the printing trade)) were called to a meeting at the management office at 1.45 pm. Here, they were told by the managing director and a person who presented himself as the liquidator that BCP was going into voluntary liquidation and was closing immediately so that all workers were dismissed and should not return to work. The worker representatives were told that the workers at a later stage would get as much as possible of the pay and holiday entitlement that the company owed them. The reasons given for the closure were that BCP had recently incurred heavy losses and that the main creditor, the paper wholesaler Robert Horne Group, was not willing to grant further credits or postponement of payment of debts.

After the meeting the shop stewards briefly discussed the situation with each other. They decided to call a meeting for the whole workforce and to put forward the proposal of an occupation. The idea of an occupation was not alien to them. They knew about the prolonged one that had taken place at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and others such as the ones at Fisher Bendix in Kirkby and Plessey in Alexandria, and they had themselves taken the initiative to a one-day sit-in in April 1971 against a management proposal to reduce staff. In the atmosphere of chock and anger that characterised the feelings among shop stewards as well as the entire workforce, the idea of an occupation appeared as the only alternative to going home without a job and without pay for work already done. The meeting unanimously decided to occupy the premises. It all happened very quickly. Bill Freeman, a shop steward who was to become the formal as well as de facto leader of the occupation, formulated it like this:

“At 3 o’clock we had the factory completely under our control. There were guards by all doors, all windows were barricaded, and nobody or nothing could get out of or into the factory without our consent. At 1.45 they had told us to get out; at 3 we had thrown them out.”

The decision to occupy was a spontaneous decision; it was triggered by what was perceived as an utterly unjust and irrational management decision, a decision that provoked a strong sense of anger and of having been conned and let down. BCP was a relatively modern and technologically up-to-date print shop. In 1967 the firm had established itself in new buildings and with modern machinery at the Old Kent Road. Due to economic recession and increased competition the years 1970 and 1971 had been difficult ones for BCP, with a turn-over that was well below the capacity of the establishment. In July 1971, apparently after pressure from the Robert Horne Group, a change in ownership took place. A Mr. Syder, who already was established with several firms in the printing industry, bought the establishment for merely £27,750. In May 1972 a new managing director was appointed. The post was given to a person who had formerly been a director at Hornes. At a meeting with the shop stewards, less than two months before the liquidation announcement was given, the new managing director promised a bright future for the BCP including increasing turn-over and substantial investments in new equipment. Actually, things did look bright at that time. Turn-over in April-May 1972 amounted to £117,000 as against £70,000 in the same months the year before, and the order book stood at £139,000 compared to £47,000 one year earlier.

Against this background management’s contention that BCP was running at a considerable loss sounded odd to the workers. A subsequent attempt by the occupiers to analyse the financial situation of BCP led the workers to the conclusion that the deficit was due to the fact that assets had been transferred to the owner and his other firms. They believed the Robert Horne Group was behind these transactions and, ultimately, the decision to close BCP, perhaps because the group wanted to take over the piece of land at which BCP was placed. What was the real story behind the closure never became known. However, the impression that emerged and stabilised itself among the workers was that the alleged losses were not due to any lack of efficiency and productivity in the print shop or among its workers. Rather, they saw themselves as victims of cold, financial speculations. This interpretation also gained strength due to a particular event at the beginning of the occupation. Whilst the workers thought they had evicted all management representatives (except for foremen who were invited to stay), it turned out that one person had remained in the offices at the first floor of the building. He was found the next day where it also became evident that his task had been to destroy as much as possible of the documents that could shed light on the financial situation of BCP.

After the decision to occupy had been taken the next step was to form an organisation that could govern the occupation. A joint chapel consisting of all workers at BCP was founded and designed as the occupation’s highest authority. It was to function through weekly plenary meetings. The joint chapel elected an action committee that should serve as the joint chapel’s executive body. The action committee had to carry out decisions taken at the plenary, handle contacts with the press, the trade unions and employers as well as act here and now if anything should come up between the weekly meetings. The committee consisted of 12 persons, namely the six shop stewards and their substitutes. One of the shop stewards, Bill Freeman, was elected as chairman of the committee. Later in the process this organisation structure was supplemented with several sub-committees dealing with issues such as production, security, public relations etc.

The first days and weeks of the occupation were full of activities aimed at organising and consolidating the occupation. Although it was decided to call the occupation a ‘work-in’ and continue working, the main concern was to defend the premises against possible attacks from the police. Rotas were organised to ensure that the entrances were guarded at all times, and during the first weeks demonstrations and mass meetings were organised to show that the occupiers were not alone. Thousands of workers showed up at these events to show their solidarity. Other activities were aimed at organising facilities that made it possible to stay at BCP all day and night round: food, beds etc.

However, at the same time the BCP workers continued to work and use their skills as graphical workers. The work was of three types. Firstly, work went into making PR-material for their own action, mainly in the form of a newsletter that was printed in 80,000 copies at certain intervals. Secondly, work was freely supplied to other workers engaged in industrial action. As an example, they supported actions staged by the dock workers, not only by being active in the demonstrations and picketing organised by the dockers, but also by printing posters and leaflets in support of five dock workers who were jailed in Pentonville prison in July 1972 due to allegedly unlawful industrial action. Another example was the printing of a ‘victory bulletin’ for the UCS workers. Thirdly, production on a business basis to some extent continued. Orders that were being carried out at the time of the liquidation were completed, and customers were urged to place new orders. Some existing customers did so, and at the same time new customers, mainly trade unions and left wing organisations, appeared. However, the turn-over, amounting to less than £30,000 for the first six months of the occupation, was only a small fraction of full production.

For this reason, a further important task was to raise incomes that could sustain the occupiers. Two sources were particularly important. One was the trade unions to which the BCP workers belonged, the most important ones being the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). They all decided to declare the action staged by the BCP workers official and consequently paid out strike support. The other one was contributions from people who sympathised with the action, whether they came from  print workers in Fleet Street who had signed up for a weekly levy, or from people gathered at trade union meetings, tenants’ meetings, students’ meetings etc. Bill Freeman was enthusiastic about the support:

“Money has come from so to speak everywhere, from all parts of the country, from abroad, from people on the shop floor, shop steward committees, factories, from voluntary collections, tenants’ organisations, political parties, churches, pensioners, even school children have given money, anybody.”

Nevertheless, the occupation was costly to the workers. They had been relatively well paid until the liquidation and now typically experienced a reduction of their income to half of what it was before. In relative terms, some were hit harder than others for the joint chapel took the decision that under the new conditions everybody should earn the same. Among the people who left during the occupation, some 45 out of 130, most probably did so for financial reasons; others left because they were, or became, dissatisfied with the way the occupation was run, including the fact that it continued for such a long time.

The BCP workers at several times discussed their aim: what would be the preferred result of their action? Forming a co-operative was seriously considered, but rejected, among other things because it was expected that many costumers would be unwilling to use a firm that had become known because of the militant act of occupying. This would make it extra difficult to survive in an industry characterised by strong competition. The preferred result therefore became to find a new employer, a person or firm that would buy BCP with the intention of continuing production.

On the basis of their theory that the Robert Horne Group was ultimately responsible for the liquidation the BCP workers attempted to put pressure on this company. Their main weapon was to picket the Robert Horne factory and store in Tower Bridge Road. This took place in the summer of 1972. It came to violent scenes one day when the Special Patrol Group of the police beat up a dozen of workers who were picketing. The news of this attack spread rapidly, and when the London dockers held a mass meeting the next day at Tower Hill they decided to go and take part in the picketing. This resulted in a mass battle between about 1000 picketers and several hundred policemen. The picketing went on for over a month and proved rather effective as it prevented lorries from entering the factory. It had the effect that Robert Horne took up negotiations with the BCP action committee. In order to get the picketing lifted Horne promised a) to help find a new buyer for BCP, b) to grant a new buyer extensive credits, and c) to persuade the present owner, Mr. Syder, to transfer a substantial amount of orders to the new owner. The BCP workers also considered to attempt to force the Robert Horne Group itself to become the new owner, but the idea was rejected because they did not trust that this would be a stable employer.

In the autumn of 1972 negotiations took place between BCP and union representatives on one side and a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, on the other. By December the unions announced that they had reached an agreement with Mr. Brockdorff, and they put pressure on the BCP workers to accept the deal, among other things by announcing that their financial support to the occupiers would now be withdrawn. The deal seemed to go some way to fulfil the demands of the BCP workers, among other things it envisaged a joint governance structure in which managers put in by the new owners should manage in cooperation with representatives from the three printing unions NATSOPA, SOGAT and NGA (Times, 14.12.1972). However, not all BCP workers were guaranteed employment, and mainly for this reason the deal was rejected by the workers. The negotiation process led to a strained relationship between the occupiers and the unions. As one of the workers put it:

“The unions want it ended as fast as possible, and I don’t think they worry much about what kind of pay and working conditions we get as long it is just gotten over with”.

By then the occupation had become more or less routine, and the days and weeks were increasingly experienced as waiting time, thus challenging the morale of the occupiers. One of the workers explained it in this way in January 1973:

“At times it gets depressing, it gets extremely depressing, especially when there are not many people here, late in the day, and for people who are guarding the buildings during the night…There are a couple of people here who appear to be rather depressed all the time, and they also talk about leaving. But most people only feel like that for shorter periods, and you try to keep the spirit up. In the daytime it is ok here, but after six or seven in the evening there are only a few people here…, and you don’t know what to talk about, if nothing new has happened, everything is very slow”.

In spite of a situation that could be felt like stalemate most workers decided to stay with the occupation. While the offensive to find a new employer had failed so far there was still a defence to put up. In February the liquidator achieved a court order against the members of the action committee for illegal occupation of the factory, with a demand that losses incurred by the factory due to the occupation should be compensated. The BCP workers decided that nobody should appear in court. Fearing that the committee would be arrested they elected a substitute committee, but first of all they reacted by printing and circulating a leaflet asking workers to take part in a demonstration outside the BCP premises on the day the committee was summoned to appear in court. On that day, 13 February, 3-4000 workers were gathered in defence of the BCP occupiers. Among those present were representatives from UCS, from the docks, car factories and from the newspaper print shops in Fleet Street as well many other places. UCS representatives pledged financial support from the UCS struggle fund, and electricians from Fleet Street promised that the newspapers would be totally paralysed if steps were taken to evict or arrest workers from BCP.
The legal system was applied again on 1 March when a new court order was issued, this time only addressed to Bill Freeman. Again the court order was ignored, and again the occupiers experienced that the police abstained from taking action against them.

In May the attempt to find a new owner finally made substantial progress. On 18 May the liquidator signed a contract stating that ownership of BCP was transferred to Peter Bentley. By the end of June an agreement was reached between Mr. Bentley and the chapels at BCP. The new owner offered employment to 58 of those 84 workers who had remained at BCP; the rest were offered jobs at other workplaces. Mr. Bentley promised that during a trial period of at least one year production would be maintained even if it would generate a loss. Under these conditions and under the slightly changed name Briant Colour Print, the print shop began to operate again on capitalist market conditions on 2 July 1973. The spirit was high among the workers. On their first working day they were heard singing and whistling at their jobs, thus celebrating that the long period of uncertainty and financial hardship was over.

However, once more the BCP workers were to experience that promises made by management cannot always be trusted. When at 10 pm on Friday the 16 November the evening shift had gone home from work the new owner sent in security guards who were instructed to make sure that the premises should not be occupied again. On the next day the BCP workers received a letter telling them that they had been dismissed.

After this long process of first uncertainty, then victory, and then defeat, the BCP workers were not prepared to begin a new collective struggle. For several months they continued to have a joint meeting every fortnight where they discussed their common experience and helped each other to find jobs elsewhere. In 2002 an invitation appeared on trade union sites on the internet in which Bill Freeman invited participants and friends of the occupation, including Tony Benn, to the 30th anniversary of the BCP occupation.

The motivation behind the occupation

In a recent article Gall (2010) attempts to explain why workers in some instances when faced with redundancies choose to occupy their workplace instead of behaving in the more mainstream way, i.e. to accept the redundancies while trying to get as much out of the situation as possible through negotiations over notice periods, redundancy payments etc. He identifies five characteristics that, if present in a given redundancy situation, push in the direction of occupation, namely:
–    collectivised nature of redundancy
–    immediate and unforeseen nature of redundancy
–    loss of deferred wages and compensation
–    pre-existing collectivisation
–    positive demonstration effect (from other occupations)

In the BCP case all these conditions were highly present. First, as the entire workforce was made redundant they were all hit in the same way and were facing the same problem, thus it was obvious to interpret it as a collective problem. Second, the redundancies were not foreseen and they were to be implemented without any notice whatsoever. Third, management’s announcement that deferred wages and holiday entitlement would be paid out at a later state, to the extent it would be possible, appeared vague and rather unconvincing. The second and third factors together were active in creating the sense of chock and anger that was predominant among the workers when they took the decision to stage an occupation. Fourth, workers at BCP were unionised and had a fairly strong tradition of acting collectively through their shop stewards, mainly though negotiations with management but also with a preparedness to down tools, one example being the brief sit-in the year before the occupation. Fifth, the workers knew about the series of factory occupations that took or recently had taken place in Britain, notable the one at UCS which received a lot of attention in the media. A few of the workers, one of them being Bill Freeman, had been active in supporting some of the other occupations and were very much aware of the occupation as a weapon that can be applied against redundancies.

Yet, as also pointed out by Gall (2010) even if these favourable conditions apply, as they certainly did in the BCP case, in most cases workers do not decide to occupy their workplace when faced with redundancies or closure. One reason for this is that many people do not perceive an occupation as a legitimate act as it involves breaking the law when workers take control over and to some extent use property belonging to the owners. Workers thus usually have moral concerns that work against the rational, tactical arguments that can be articulated in favour of an occupation. It must be presumed, however, that such concerns are weighed against considerations regarding the morality displayed by the employer. In the BCP case such a comparison of moral standards on the two sides were clearly visible. One worker had this to say about the behaviour of the owner, Mr. Syder:

“We found bills here for the big party he threw when his new swimming pool was inaugurated. I think the bill for the booze alone was £3-4000, he rented a tent, £4000! He had a bill on his Aston Martin from his mechanic, how much? £800! That man is nothing but a simple thief, and still he gets away with it, because he is all the time doing it in the legal way. There is nothing you can do, you know….And he says to us that this firm has to close, because it has been so much run down, you know. It is these people you have to work for, and have to respect, they even think. I mean, I have no respect for that kind of people, you know.”

The decision to frame the occupation as a work-in was also influenced by moral considerations. Bill Freeman explained:

“The occupation is more important than the work-in. The important thing is that you control their property and that they cannot touch it. But we decided to have a work-in because we found that it would be relatively easy for us to run a work-in, contrary to for instance for workers in the heavy industry, and because we thought it would be good for people to have something to do while being here. Plus the fact that it wins the sympathy of the broad population…When we say we demand the right to work and proves it by working it helps psychologically to win the support of the broad population.”

It was clear from the interviews that the BCP occupiers felt strongly offended, felt they were being treated with disrespect (Honneth 1996) and found their own action morally superior to the type of employer behaviour they had been exposed to. Prior to the occupation, the great majority of workers at BCP held rather conventional views about society, politics, law and order. With the decision to occupy the workers went beyond their own norms regarding law and order. In this process, moral outrage served as a driving force just as much more ‘rational’ and interest-based factors of the type identified by Gall (2010).

To a minority among the workers politics also played a motivating role. Within the workforce there was a small group of persons who saw themselves as socialist activists and found it important not just to struggle for own interests, but also to engage in other workers’ struggles. They interpreted the BCP occupation as not just a struggle to defend their own jobs, but as part of a wider class struggle. Bill Freeman, a member of the Communist Party, belonged to this group and described the political motivation like this:

“…we try to show other workers that you can fight an employer, and if we can do it we hope to be part of…UCS has shown it, other people have shown it, and if enough people take this form of action, we should, in due time, be able to build a movement which can completely overthrow this system. I hope so; that is what it is all about”.

If such a revolutionary perspective had not been present among a small, but influential part of the workforce, things might have turned out differently, as witnessed by these reflections by one of the lay workers:

“…most likely we would have left the place after a couple of hours of discussion, but luckily Mr. Freeman had a bit of experience from… other people’s situation outside this industry…Mr. Freeman has been in the executive of the chapel and has always been interested in industrial relations, also outside this trade. He knew about what had happened earlier, and he knew what could be done, or what you can attempt to do to defend jobs.”

With Bill Freeman as leader it was central for the BCP occupation not just to fight for own jobs but to link with other struggles at the time. It appears that the majority of the workers, even if not sharing the revolutionary perspective, supported this active class struggle approach. For instance, several of the interviewed workers expressed their enthusiasm about the close cooperation that developed between the dockers and the BCP workers. One said:

“It was fantastic. It is the first time I have seen two trades so closely connected… It has amazed me how much we actually got involved with each other, while normally, if a trade union has a problem, it fights by itself, alone, you know. We had meetings and demonstrations where the dockers took part, and we took part when they had their problems in the docks and had some blokes put in Pentonville prison”.

To sum up: the motivation behind the occupation consisted in a complex mix of instrumental and moral and political elements. However, one thing is the motivation to occupy, another is how workers manage to sustain an occupation over time, or, in the BCP case, how could the occupation be kept alive for more than a year? This is the theme of next section.

Sustaining the occupation

In particular three aspects merit attention when this question is addressed: the material and moral support received from unions, other workers and sympathisers in general; the significance of conducting the occupation as a work-in; and the specific forms of organisation chosen to govern the occupation.

Regarding the first aspect, the BCP occupiers were themselves very active in attempting to raise support from their unions, other workers and the trade union movement at large. They circulated their newsletter and leaflets widely and travelled up and down the country to speak at solidarity meetings. As described above they were rather successful in promoting their case, and in this way sympathy action as well as fund-raising were stimulated, both vital for the survival of the occupation. Collections of money that could supplement the funds granted by the unions were necessary to guarantee the subsistence of the workers, and, if we are to understand why the occupiers were never confronted with attempts to evict them, the recurring mass demonstrations outside the factory gates were probably a decisive factor. An important part of the total support came from the unions in the printing industry. Although the BCP workers felt that the support from their unions was only lukewarm and that “they could have done a hell of a lot more”, they would of course have been in a much more difficult situation if the unions had failed to make their industrial action official and support it materially.

As a second aspect, the fact that the occupation was organised as a work-in played a significant role in sustaining the occupation. The motives for making it a work-in have already been mentioned. Apart from the publicity argument which helped to raise sympathy and support, the work-in was significant in the sense that it helped making it attractive for workers to stay with the occupation. While the hopes of finding a new employer were frustrated several times there was still something to do within the premises. It was not just the defence of the buildings; there was also work to do, and in this way the occupiers could maintain their identity as print workers. So, in spite of depressing moods among those guarding the buildings during long and cold winter nights most workers felt that it was worthwhile to stay. After the first six months of the occupation the figure of 130 employees had only shrunk to about 100, and when it ended after 12 months there were still 84 workers taking part in the collective action.

In the beginning work mainly consisted in printing posters, leaflets and newsletters for the BCP occupation itself or in support of other workers in struggle. However, BCP also continued to receive commercial orders, partly from old customers, partly from new ones. Although most of the old customers stopped placing orders at BCP some continued to do so. Especially firms that needed reprints of material that existed in print ready form at BCP came back as it would be considerably more costly to have the work done elsewhere. Out of the total production about 60 per cent was commercial work where BCP printed tickets, posters, books, advertisements etc. as they had done before. On top of this, there was work that fulfilled mainly politically motivated orders: from trade union organisations, tenants’ organisations, community groups etc. Prices varied from full market price if the customer was a private firm or an established trade union, to nothing if the customer was a group without resources that the BCP occupiers sympathised with. Bill Freeman explained:

“If it is people in struggle like ourselves, without any money, then we just use the resources of the firm, and that is that. If it is somebody who can pay a little bit, then they just pay for the materials, our labour is free”.

The BCP workers took pride in being able to help other workers by doing what they were good at: printing. At the same time the work-in gave them confidence in their ability to produce without being managed by an employer. In the words of one of the workers:

“…with a sit-in you just occupy the buildings, but with a work-in, like the one we have here, we have shown that we can run the factory, you know. Maybe not so efficiently, you know, but with a little training, with a little time, there is no doubt that we can do it.”

Work was organised differently than prior to the occupation. Together with a representative from the action committee those of the foremen who had stayed on formed a management committee. This committee planned and coordinated production and established manning and time schedules. Functions that before was carried out by office and management staff, such as sales and accounting, were taken over by print workers. Workers’ influence over their work greatly increased while discipline was very much left to the individual workers. The latter was a source to some tensions between workers, as not everyone was equally conscientious in relation to the tasks that had to be done within the new work organisation.

The experience of the work-in was accompanied by lengthy discussions at the joint meetings of the concept of workers’ control. Was workers’ control a desirable goal? How should it be practised? Can it be practised in a capitalist society or only within a different political-economical system? Opinions varied, also when it was discussed more specifically whether the workers should try to buy the firm and form a cooperative. In the end, arguments that are sceptical towards such a solution won the day. Fearing that a cooperative would be blacklisted by other firms, one worker commented that “we would have the whole system against us – it would simply be downhill all the time”. Bill Freeman explained his position – a position that no doubt heavily influenced the decision eventually taken by the collective:

“It is not because we think that any other employer will be much better than the old ones, all employers are alike, you know. Basically, we don’t want an employer at all, we want to change the system – some of us, not all of us, want to change the system. But at the same time it is just unrealistic to try to run this place as a kind of socialist island in a capitalist sea”.

A third factor that was influential in sustaining the occupation was its internal organisation. The three layered structure described above consisting of the weekly plenary meeting, the executive committee (the action committee) and the chairman of the action committee appears to have functioned well in the sense that the organisation managed to solve the many problems and challenges that the occupation was confronted with. It happened in a way in which concerns for democracy as well as efficiency were taken into consideration.

One of the workers vividly explained how the joint chapel meeting, the weekly plenary, helped to integrate and to create a feeling of community:

“I have noticed that when you start a new week then Monday and Tuesday are ok, Wednesday is not so good, and on Thursday and Friday you start quarrelling a bit and everything begins to dissolve. Then on Monday there is a joint meeting and everything is picked up again. It is interesting, you know, everything is melted together again, and it is really very good…I would think that if two or three weeks passed without a meeting it would fall completely apart”.

He also stressed that the meetings appeared more important and exciting than prior chapel meetings. While chapel meetings were rather boring

“now everything is much more important, the joint meetings are interesting, we always get a report on the situation, about the financial situation, about how long we can continue and whether somebody has left the occupation. The meetings always succeed in becoming extremely interesting…Now everyone has something to say about how things should be run in these buildings…You are involved in much more, you are not just a number, you really have a real influence on everything”.

The next layer, the action committee met frequently, often on daily basis. The committee was in charge of implementing the decisions taken by the joint chapel. One of the shop stewards serving on the committee explained how the occupation had changed his daily work:

“I have not worked in the print shop at all during these six months. All my time has been devoted to contacting people, going out talking to people, and there is also a great deal of paperwork involved in it”.

Finally, the organisation consisted of a third layer, the chairman of the action committee who was the charismatic Bill Freeman. It is difficult to overestimate his role during the entire process. Although, as mentioned, his revolutionary views of society and the meaning of the BCP occupation were hardly shared by the majority of the workers, the interviews demonstrate that he was very much respected and looked up to by the workers. A worker, who presented himself as the oldest worker at BCP and as one who had been made redundant six times during his career in the printing industry, had this to say:

“…I have always tried to be an active trade unionist, but I mean Bill is somewhat different from the other shop stewards you meet, some of them don’t really care…When I came here five years ago and saw how the chapels were organised it warmed my heart, you know, really wonderful. Our chapter has always been a strong one. It made me feel really happy, right from when I started here”.

Another worker gave this description of Bill Freeman’s role in the occupation:

“…he is fantastic. He inspires people with so much self-confidence. Many times people have said: ‘We have lost, we are finished, nobody wants to buy us…and that’s it then’, and he says, ‘Well, if we can’t do that, then we will do this’. Never ever during the seven months have I heard him say we have lost. ‘If we stick together, one hundred per cent together, we cannot loose’, he says. It has been like that right from the start. He said, ‘We must win, and if we win, forget what we are doing for ourselves, it will be a victory for the entire people in this country, the entire working class…”.

Beyond success or failure: the occupation as a learning process

In instrumental terms the result of the occupation can hardly be described as a success, let alone victory. If we leave out of account the fact that some 80-100 workers had some kind of job and income during the one year of the occupation, and that some 50 jobs were maintained under the new employer for a period of four months after the occupation, the attempt to use the occupation as an instrument to save jobs failed in the long run.

However, this is not say that the struggle as such that BCP workers put up against redundancies can be categorised neatly as a failure. Saving jobs was the official, instrumental goal of the action, but it was not the only goal, and it was not the only thing that made the action meaningful for its participants. To many of the participants the occupation was first and foremost a protest, a piece of resistance demonstrating that the BCP workers simply would not accept being thrown out of work from one day to the next. Thus from this perspective the important thing was not the instrumental result of the action as such, but the fact that they were resisting. One of the workers, who, in the light of the conditions offered by Mr. Brockdorff, did not expect himself to maintain his job due his low seniority in the firm, put it like this:

“I think we won they day we started. That is my personal opinion. The day we rose up and did not walk out the door as sheep, I think we won then, you know”.

To people like Bill Freeman the sheer deed of putting up a fight against employers’ hegemony over work was also just as important as defending his own and his colleagues’ jobs. They saw the occupation as part of a wider movement that could eventually lead to fundamental changes in the country’s economic system. And even if such wider consequences should not materialise, the idea was that at least some employers might start reconsidering how they treated their workers. One of the not so militant workers felt that the occupation had already had a certain positive impact on industrial relations:

“…if we do not succeed the time has not been wasted, that is how I look at it. The time has not been wasted if we are going to be here for another six months and there is still no solution… Even if we have to walk out of here I am sure it must have done some good, somewhere, you know. Those in power cannot always win as easily as they would like.”

He continued to tell a story of how an officer in his union recently had been approached by an employer who said that he would have to sack some of his employees. He had then added that he did not want “to get another Briant Colour case” in his firm, and had asked the union officer how much he thought it would be necessary to pay on top of the normal redundancy payment to make sure that he could avoid trouble. Therefore:

“Well that’s fine, that’s what I like, that’s what I hope we achieve even if we loose here, do you see what I mean? As I said I am sure we have achieved something. Even if we loose here we have perhaps helped to save jobs in other companies because of this”.

BCP workers thus found themselves recognised and their action appreciated by other workers. In this sense they saw their action as a collective success. Another aspect concerned what taking part in the occupation had meant to them at a personal level. Many of the interviewed workers stressed that the occupation had been an important learning process for them. They had acquired new skills, new knowledge and a changed consciousness as to how industrial relations and society function. A shop steward told how the occupation had been “an education” for him in the sense that he was now much less naïve about how business people are prepared to treat workers. He also noted this about some of his fellow workers:

“People here at Briant, people I personally thought were untalented in the sense that they were only able to do their job, and only that job, they have surprised us by suddenly finding new talents. We have had people to do the accounts, you know, people who can go out and speak at meetings, you know. Things like that which we did not know existed at all in any of these people have sprung up. There are some people here now who feel that they would rather do something else than return to their old job”.

One worker, a middle aged bookbinder, also described how people had developed new skills, technically as well as regarding industrial relations:

“We have learned so much from it. These people up here in the offices have learned more during these six months than what they have learned since they left school…I mean I have learned a lot on the shop floor I must admit, but these people up here have literally learned more about so many things than they have ever learned in the trade. And of course this information can be passed on to any other workplace which finds itself in a similar situation”.

A young bookbinder gave this personal account of how his work life had changed during the occupation:

“Bill asked at one of the meetings if I would take minutes and then it developed from there. I began to usually take the minutes. In the beginning I still tended my old job on the shop floor, but gradually it became difficult to do both things, for there were many meetings at that time…Then I was more or less up here in the offices all the time, unless they really needed people downstairs. During the last two months I have helped with a number of different things up here. I have also gone out to a number of universities as a speaker, when they couldn’t find anybody else that could go. I have also helped with the mail and a couple of other small jobs…I could not really just sit down on the shop floor and wait for the things to happen…, I have to get involved”.

For some the occupation was a political education. Whether it was the oldest worker at BCP who said:

“This is the first work-in I have ever taken part in…, and I have learned a lot from it, a hell of a lot, about how people can stick together and things like that…I would do it again if I am made redundant again. I would not hesitate”

Or the young unskilled worker who stressed how more well known worker activists had inspired him:

“During the six months here I think I have learned more than during 13 years in the printing industry…I have met some fantastic people and I have heard some fantastic people speak at meetings…Like when they came down from UCS, they were fantastic. When they stood up and spoke you felt eight feet tall just by listening to them”.

Or the middle aged foreman who had rejected normal managerial attitudes:

“Let me put it like this: as a foremen you socialise with other foremen and managers, and if you do it long enough you get brainwashed into their politics, you tend to believe they are right regarding their conflicts with people on the shop floor…But in that respect I have definitely changed within the last three or four months. I have realised a lot about what is wrong with the system”.

The BCP workers all came out of the occupation with a changed biography. Not everyone may have learned so much and changed so much as described in the examples above. However, although uncertainty and hardships also formed part of the experience it was an exiting and inspiring event in the lives of all the participants.  A feature that was repeated again and again in the interviews was the pride with which they presented their action. It was their action, but at the same time they represented the mood of the time, a mood of liberation against forms of humiliation and oppression that were, and largely still are, part of working life in capitalist society. The occupation was influenced by that mood as well as it was reinforcing it. To use the expression of Malcolm Marks, an activist in the 1971 occupation at Fisher Bendix, it was “a mini-revolution” (Knudsen and Sandahl 1974, 12).

References

Honneth, A. (1996): The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, London, Polity Press.
http://transpont.blogspot.com/2009/08/briant-colour-printing-occupation-… (accessed 22.03.2011)
Knudsen, H. and Sandahl, J. (1974): Arbejdskamp i Storbritannien. Strejker og fabriksbesættelser i begyndelsen af 1970’erne, Aarhus, Modtryk.
Times, 14.12.1972.

This account was heisted from workerscontrol.net

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London radical history: Visteon workers occupy their factory, Enfield, 2009.

A Post-Fordist struggle

Report & reflections on the UK Ford-Visteon dispute 2009

NB: This is a long post. No apologies. It was written by a supporter of the Visteon occupation shortly after it ended, (a longer version of an article originally written on request for the Wildcat group in Germany) and published online (on libcom) as well as put out as a free pamphlet by past tense. It’s worth re-posting in its entirety. 

In June 2000 Ford Motor Company outsourced the production of certain component parts to a new company called Visteon – in reality a spin off company of Ford and in which Ford retained a 60% holding. Visteon runs factories all over the globe: in America, Europe and Asia, for example. In England a deal between the Ford company and the union promised all former Ford workers – now employees of Visteon – that they would keep the same wage and pension conditions they’d had with Ford (ie, mirrored conditions). But all newly hired Visteon workers were employed under inferior contracts.

On 31st of March 2009 Ford/Visteon announced the closure of three factories in the UK and the sacking of 610 workers(1). The company was declared insolvent and put into receivership. The receivers visited all three plants; with no prior warning workers were sacked with only a few minutes notice and told only that the company had gone bust. No guarantees were given concerning redundancy or pensions payments. The management had made the workers work up to the last minute, knowing that they would not even receive any wages for their final shifts.

On the 31st workers in Belfast responded to the closure announcement by occupying their factory spontaneously. After a clash with security guards, workers secured the building and within two hours several hundred local supporters had visited the occupation. Two KPMG administrators were on the premises at the time of the occupation and refused to leave. So the workers locked them in a portakabin – where they apparently stayed for 36 hours with no food, before finally agreeing to leave! Such pointless dedication to their job… Some managers’ cars also remained locked in the occupation.

Having heard the news about Belfast, the Basildon (Essex), and Enfield (north London) Visteon plants also occupied the next day. The Basildon plant contained no stock or machinery of much value to the company; so the workers trashed the site offices. A group of riot cops appeared and the workers were ‘pursuaded’ to end their occupation, presumably under the threat of ‘leave or you’ll be nicked for criminal damage’. They then began 24hr picketing of the plant.

At Enfield the workers were called to a meeting and within six minutes had been made redundant. They were told they could return the next day to collect belongings from lockers. But the next day (April Fools Day) the security guards refused them entry; no doubt on instructions of the company now alerted to the Belfast occupation. After 40 mins waiting – and inspired by Belfast – they decided to also occupy. Knowing where there was an unlocked gate, they returned to the factory and managed to secure part of it for themselves; about 100 workers occupied the paint-shop and the roof.

The character of the dispute at the three plants was determined by local conditions; at Belfast many workers lived close to the plant and had strong links with the immediate local community, having shown solidarity to many local causes over the years. So they were provided with plenty of practical support; within hours local people and shops were providing food and other resources for the occupiers. Unlike the other plants, Belfast was also demanding that the plant be reopened and their jobs saved (though maybe few saw this as a very likely outcome).

West Belfast MP Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein backed the Belfast occupation from the beginning. As one Belfast supporter explained;
“The workforce in Visteon/Ford Belfast was 50-50 Catholic and Protestant so this was not an issue in terms of workplace make-up. However, the plant is in a part of west Belfast that is almost 100% Catholic and while the plant has huge support from both sides of the community, west Belfast is particularly politicised and republican – so Gerry Adams, neccessarily being a populist, jumped behind the campaign. If the plant was in east Belfast, which is mostly Protestant, I very much doubt he’d give a fuck.”

Despite Sinn Fein’s behaviour – typical of a party committed to managing the capitalist economy – of courting bosses to encourage capital investment in the region, Adams could hardly ignore such an issue at the heart of his voter constituency.

At Basildon and Enfield workers travelled from a wide area in and close to London to work there. At Enfield many of the generally middle-aged workers – a lot of them women – had worked for Ford/Visteon for 20-30 years, and had seen the factory shrink from 2,000 to 227 workers, after spark plug and electronic production was relocated to other factories – some of them as far away as Turkey or South Africa. The workers had a diverse composition; about half of them born in India, Sri Lanka, Italy, the Carribean and so on.

[Note; the rest of this account concentrates mainly on the Enfield plant, as this is where we were involved as supporters.]

Workers at all plants were members of the Unite union. From the start at Enfield, Unite’s only contact point and involvement was via the factory’s convenors(2). Some union bosses came down briefly to pledge support, but actually delivered nothing, apart from poor legal advice. The occupiers were left to sustain themselves – despite workers paying years of union subs, no money was given (after 3 weeks or so, it is rumoured that the union finally provided a little finance). The union gave no mention on its website of the dispute, nor encouraged their members to give active support. So all the resources needed to sustain the occupation and picketing were provided by workers and supporters.

At Enfield, local support was very weak – though close to a working class residential area, the plant was separated across a main road on an industrial estate and the workplace, as commuters, did not have the same immediate local links as Belfast. So despite thousands of leaflets being distributed to locals, it brought very little response or involvement. This is a sign of the times and a symptom of 25 years of defeats in class struggles; people are now far less likely to recognise themselves and their own common interests in the struggles of others – solidarity has become an alien concept for many in an increasingly atomised reality. The working class has become largely a fragmented, individualised class in itself rather than a class acting for itself with any great unity. Part of the optimism over recent UK workers’ struggles is that they may be the early signs of overcoming this long and weary fragmentation that has so changed the atmosphere in the UK since the defeat of the 1984-85 Miners Strike.

For most workers it was the first time in their life that they had to deal with complicated legal matters. At the beginning they relied on legal experts provided by the union – who turned out to be quite useless; it was activists with squatting experience who informed the occupiers that squatting was not illegal but merely unlawful (an important legal distinction defining severity of potential consequences).

The Basildon workers found documentary evidence suggesting that the closures had been planned for years, that the spin off of Visteon from Ford may been have part of a long term plan as the most convenient and cost-effective way of closing unprofitable parts of the business. Further evidence of long-term planning was shown by the fact that the management had protected their pensions by secretly moving them to another fund. Evidence was also found that one of the bosses had intentions to reopen the plant with cheaper labour later; so they paid a visit to this boss’s country mansion. Unfortunately he was not at home and Visteon had already provided his house with security guard protection. The workers delivered a letter expressing their demands. (Video here: http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-factory-occupation-workers-go-bosss-house-08042009)

Protest or class struggle?

The occupation coincided with the G20 protests in London’s City financial centre, where around 10,000 activists gathered to express their anti-capitalism to the gathered world leaders. The City protests were leafletted to inform protestors of the Enfield occupation, but to little reponse. As was later commented on an internet forum:
“It was a real contrast to see how much energy and resources went into the organising of the G20 protests compared to how much support the Visteon occupation was given. This is partly an indication of the difference in priority, for some, given to activist protest on the one hand and class struggle on the other – and partly that many useful G20 resources [which could have been used at the occupation and, later, picket] had already returned to their sources outside London. […] The occupation’s been going for about 10 days now, and I doubt there’s ever been much more than 300 people outside the factory, including workers, family and friends, and SWP. In comparison with the thousands at G20, not all of whom, it’s true, live in London; but many of whom are not ‘class warriors’ either and reject such an outlook.”

Activists sometimes complain that unions, the state etc try to isolate struggles – but some people’s political ideology does the job without any outside help.

In occupation

The occupation organised itself in an informal way – familiar workmates now found themselves together – but with their use and relation to the workplace transformed. Tasks were organised and carried out as needed and according to abilities.

Out of a total workforce of 227, the occupation was maintained by a hardcore of 70-80 ex-workers, plus a handful of supporters. One occupier, a libertarian socialist pensioner involved from the start of the occupation, described conditions;
“70 or so people sleeping in a paint shop , on work benches or the floor, or in chairs, is clearly a difficult position, Some were even without sleeping bags. People kipped down anywhere , though many of the women used a cubby hole that was both warmer and darker than outside,. The lights were always on, as some people were awake to ensure the barricaded entrances were safe. I slept on a work bench. Many people went home for washes or showers , and a soft mattress. Others stayed put, making do with baby-wipes for the time being.” […]
“Food. At first we were overwhelmed with food, specially bread and milk. S and D who ran the “canteen “area, kept everything in its place. The toaster and two microwaves were in frequent use. The area was very crowded especially in the evening when those on the roof came down.” […]
“The food was soon systematically organised.” […] “S P , chair of the Shop Stewards Committee, who had been in a family catering concern, would start early at home and cook up breakfasts for the 70 or so people who were here on average. This was home cooked food and high quality too.
The same was even more true of the evening meal . T. would go home and cook up two or three delicious chefs bowls of curry, rice , pasta or what ever. This was really high quality. Selected contents, without the strong tasting ingredients of restaurants, was eagerly eaten and many had second helpings as well. It was excellent compensation for the hardship.” 
(Ford Visteon Workers Occupation – an eyewitness account and first thoughts; Alan Woodward, CopyLeft, Gorter Press, c/o PO Box 45155, London N15 4SL.)

As the occupation continued, a support network emerged; a rally was called on the 4th day of occupation, a Saturday. Afterwards a meeting was called among the broadly anarchist and libertarian activists. A Support Group was set up, largely (but not exclusively) based around the existing Haringey Solidarity Group, a libertarian community activist grouping. For the rest of the occupation and subsequent 24hr pickets, it was this hardcore of around 15-20 people who provided most of the support to the ex-workers. This was important; the workers have stated that it was the surprising support they received that sustained them in their struggle. Leafletting, fundraising, publicity and picketing was all done as co-operative efforts between ex-workers and and supporters. This was not a workplace with a militant history (though a few older workers remembered a nine week strike in the late 70s), and few had any experience of political activity. So, after the spontaneous decision to occupy, the solidarity that appeared – limited though it has been compared to earlier periods of class struggle – came as a welcome surprise.

The left groups appeared for various events and photo- and paper-selling opportunities(3) but – with one or two individual exceptions – provided very little active contribution to the struggle. In fact, their patronising attitude during the occupation resulted in SWP (Trotskyist – the UK’s main left party) individuals being asked to leave.

After 9 days the occupation was ended on April 9th.

As we said at the time;

“The occupation was an inspiration for many – the spirit of the workers who refused to submit to being blatantly robbed by their bosses seemed to be what many had been waiting for, for far too long – the early possible signs of a resurgence of class struggle. Now that the occupation is ended without any clear victory in sight, some reflection is needed on the strengths and weaknesses of what has happened. It is always easy to be wise after the event, and necessary to be careful not to forget who initiated this struggle and took the risks. Any criticisms are as much of ourselves as supporters as of the occupiers. Still, we’ll never get very far in developing our struggles if we don’t reflect on where we went wrong and how we all might do things better next time.

The union pursuaded the workers to end the occupation today (Thursday Apr 9th) without any details of the rumoured deal being made known to them. They are told all will be revealed on Tuesday. The obvious question is – why then not wait until Tuesday to decide whether to leave the factory? There will be different answers from different interested parties. Some workers may say they are tired from constant occupation and/or that they have been pursuaded/pressured by the union that the bosses have insisted the occupation must end to guarantee the unspecified possible deal. The union may also claim that there could be legal penalties for failing to comply with the undertaking given in court on Monday to leave the factory by noon today. But none of this appears very convincing or in the workers’ interest; they have surrendered their greatest bargaining asset, the possession of the plant, its machinery and stock. So the negotiations restart on Tuesday from a weakened position for the workers. The picketing that is planned to replace the occupation will be less effective in preventing repossession of Visteon property. And legal threats can probably be applied to enforce restrictions on picketing activity too.

The rough conditions in the factory shouldn’t be underestimated, but another few days might have made all the difference to the outcome that may determine the workers’ long-term financial future. (The Ford pension fund is already 100s of millions in the red.) It had already been suggested that a rota system could’ve been set up, with help from supporters, to ease the strain of manning the occupation.

The union may claim that the undertaking they gave in court on Monday – that the occupation would end by noon today – left them open to legal penalties; but even the judge queried if they could guarantee the obedience of the occupiers. One would think that all the union would’ve needed to do to protect themselves is to say that they had made an effort to pursuade the occupiers to leave. The occupiers themselves could have stayed with no legal sanctions hanging over them other than a standard possession order common in squatting cases. The agreed undertaking with Visteon was that they would not seek possession while negotiations continue. Visteon – and the union – made that conveniently obsolete by agreeing to postpone revealing any details of the deal until Tuesday (if there even is any deal). One can speculate that if a really satisfactory deal was on offer the union would already be shouting it from the rooftops.

The union and the left have already begun to claim this struggle as a victory on the grounds that it forced the company to the negotiating table and that it has inspired other workers. These are partial truths, though any real assessment would have to be made after any deal is sealed. But the fact that the workers have been maneuouvred by the union into a vulnerable position where they could easily be screwed is something not to be glossed over, as the left will want to. This false optimism is only a means of repressing reflection on limits and strengths of what has happened, and a recipe for a repeat of the same errors in the future.

In the final meeting of occupiers no real opposition was expressed to the union’s direction to walk out. This despite some occupiers in earlier conversation expressing a desire to carry on until a decent deal is struck. The same union convenors, who in the beginning had said they and the other occupiers would never leave until a satisfactory deal was agreed, were now obliged to convince the workers they must leave with nothing guaranteed, only rumours of a possible mysterious deal to come. Some in the meeting voiced serious criticisms of the union for keeping them in the dark about developments and not giving enough support to the occupation, but most were by now either relieved or resigned to walking out. The union’s authority to ultimately decide the fate of the workers was not challenged. Early on in the occupation, when it was mentioned that the union might pressure an end to the occupation against workers’ wishes, a couple of workers replied “ah, but we are the union”, as if the workers’ collective voice could control the union structure. But once negotiations were organised by officials – on the other side of the world – and the whole process becomes remote and secret from the workers in the hands of specialists, they become dependent not on what they know, but on what they’re told. And we know from long experience that the union hierarchy has its own vested interests to protect that often don’t coincide with that of the workers.
[…]
But it is often awkward to stick one’s neck out; given the general identification with the union, many supporters felt sensitive about being openly critical of the union and its underlying agenda, for fear of being seen to be divisive. But at the end of the day it’s no good repressing these criticisms – or glossing them over for the sake of some image of unity – when only the explicit recognition of these realities may prevent defeat.”
 (http://libcom.org/news/enfield-ford-visteon-occupation-ends-no-conclusion-10042009)

The original court case brought by Visteon against the occupation on April 6th included the threat of legal sanctions (supposedly imprisonable offences) against two of the union convenors. The exact potential charges the union claimed were being threatened have never been explained; all that has been explicitly referred to are the possibility of costs being awarded against the convenors (which the union could have easily covered). Though UK injunction laws are draconian, this is another example of the union failing to inform the ex-workers of the full facts – which, deliberately or not, made it easier for the union to pressure workers to comply with the union’s wishes.

From a video of the final occupation meeting, showing the union explaining why it must end, (video here; http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-workers-eviction-enfield-14042009) it’s apparent that scare tactics, deliberately vague information and dubious advice were used. The legal arguments and assessment of risks were extremely dubious, on several grounds. If the occupiers had refused to leave and the case had gone back to court it could have been argued in Unite and the occupiers’ defence that the undertaking was originally to give time for negotiations to occur. But as the company did not announce any offer at the previously agreed deadline of Thurs 12 noon – the occupiers were then freed from keeping their side of the bargain to vacate the premises. But union bureaucrats don’t like things like occupations – they get insecure when they see workers taking initiative for themselves.

Only shortly before the Visteon occupation, other workers had broken the law with no prosecution occurring. Prison officers are legally banned from industrial action but had taken action recently. The prison officers’ union leader justified their action with, for a screw, quite ironic words; “The right to strike is the only defence of our freedom. If this means breaking the law, we are prepared for this”.

The same week as the occupation the NUT and NAHT teachers’ unions were preparing to boycott the SATS test for children aged 11 from next year. They planned to get votes at their Conferences. This was clearly illegal, as government Ministers proclaimed on television . This would arguably be a “conspiracy” to breach the law – a criminal offence punishable by prison. The recent Lindsey oil refinery wildcat strikes also escaped any legal sanction. Similarly, the Belfast Ford-Visteon ocupation suffered no legal penalties.

The evidence suggests that the government wanted the Ford Visteon dispute dealt with sensitively. As one of the first major disputes of the credit crisis, with redundancy and pensions the issues, its handling – and possibly workers’ responses – would be a template for future company bankruptcies. A heavy-handed violent eviction of workers who had been blatantly robbed by their employers after a lifetime of employment would be likely to inflame the situation by informing the millions of soon-to-be-unemployed of what they might also expect. As other companies fail, the government is worried that things might escalate.

Meanwhile, Belfast remained in occupation and the company – realising the greater local support there and history of militancy – had not yet applied to the courts for possession proceedings. When the court possession papers did arrive at Belfast, the occupiers ceremoniously burned them and remained in occupation. A supporter described the situation there:
“Since 2000 the negotiation has been an ongoing process. The ‘520’ agreement said that workers at one of Ford’s ‘Visteon’ plants had the right to work in another Ford plant as Ford employees. At one point when a ‘Visteon’ plant in England was shedding jobs many of the employees flowed to a nearby Ford plant and replaced outsourced workers with temporary contracts. The workers at Visteon plants in England have nearby Ford plants in which they are potentially eligible for work, for example the Ford plant in Bridgend was 11 miles from the Swansea Visteon plant [both plants in Wales]. However in Belfast, there is no such nearby plant. The 520 agreement only applies if the workers go to a Ford plant, so obviously the Belfast workers in Finaghy feel this plant closure is ripping the heart out of their community (the majority of whom are from greater Belfast area and a significant minority of which are directly from the immediate Finaghy/West Belfast area.

This is perhaps why the focus of the campaign is not on redundancy pay (as has been reported in the news) but rather the focus is on keeping the factory open. “I don’t want a redundancy package,” one worker told me. It was Belfast workers refusal to leave that inspired similar direct action resistance at the two other closing Visteon plants in Basildon and Enfield (England). On Wednesday a supporters’ march with a couple hundred people started at a local shopping centre and walked out to the occupied plant. The Northern Ireland Parades Commission normally requires 28 days notice before any kind of march can happen (because sectarian marches have resulted in violence). However the police were down to the plant the day before to fast track the permission process so that the March could go forward legally. Support for the Belfast workers occupation has so far been very strong from all quarters.”

With the end of the Enfield occupation, to retain any leverage in negotiations it became essential to prevent stock and machinery being removed from the plant. (Of the three plants, Enfield held the most valuable company property – including expensive plastic moulding machinery.) 24hr picketing of the plant’s five gates began. Still the union failed to provide any resources; braziers, portaloos, tents and a caravan being provided by ex-workers and supporters. The ex-workers were by now very disillusioned by the union – but at the same time the union’s lack of support meant they began to learn some skills of collective self-organisation.

Unite – a force for isolation 

In the car industry the economic crisis means most workers are now on reduced hours. As a relatively well paid manual job, most car workers have mortgages and other debt commitments, so the increased economic insecurity in the present crisis meant workers were unwilling to risk their income for on-the-job solidarity action with the ex-Ford-Visteon workers. But most of the finances were coming from local union branches (not just car workers) sending donations via the support group; though the union finally, after 3 weeks, coughed up some cash. Unite also failed to mention the dispute on their website or send out information to local union branches – showing their real attitude to the dispute and concern to keep it isolated. As the dispute went on, ex-workers’ disillusionment with the union increased to a permanent cynicism – unsurprisingly, given their lack of support and Unite’s failure to keep ex-workers informed. Many felt their convenors were too close to, or influenced by, the union bosses and that this affected their ability to act in the best interests of all. But, without having space here to say much, we must note that any criticism of the union must recognise that it is not simply – as some supporters and workers have implied – that the union is ‘not doing its job properly’, but that it is doing its job all too well as a capitalist institution. As always, it has prioritised its own organisational interests and tried to limit workers’ gains to what can be accommodated to those interests and to the wider interests of the economy.

Union bureaucrats helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis 

The close political and financial relationship between UK unions and the Labour Party continues (often rewarded by a seat and title in the House of Lords for retired union bosses). Disputes like this make clear that unions are one of the mechanisms by which the financial crisis will be managed for capital. The 55% stake taken by America’s UAW union in Chrysler is another example – the deal includes a no-strike agreement until 2015!

The first round

Meanwhile, convenors from the three plants were flown out to the US, alongside Unite bosses, to negotiate with Visteon bosses. Ford bosses refused to participate – they still denied any obligation to their former workers. Therefore a satisfactory deal was always unlikely to be won from these negotiations. According to one report, the convenors were not present in the meetings, but were left in the bar while the bosses on both sides decided the fate of ‘their’ workers.

After this first round of negotiations an offer was made by the administrators – but this was simply 90 day’s wages, which was the minimum statutory obligation anyway! In response to this insult the Enfield pickets now reinforced the barricades around the factory exits. The 24hr picketing was, unsurprisingly, proving far more difficult to sustain than an occupation. But rotas were organised and, between ex-workers and supporters, a presence was kept on the 5 gates. Ford dealerships around the country were also being regularly picketted and leafletted. One account;
“On a Saturday afternoon, 3 of us went to leaflet a Ford dealership in Waltham Cross. There wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic – but the dealership was on a corner of a crossroads with traffic lights. So we started leafletting cars as they stopped, waiting for the lights to change – getting out on the road among the cars, giving leaflets thru windows. Then Ian (ex-worker), his partner and daughter joined us – Ian in white boiler suit with “toot for the workers” painted on his back, and they brought placards, whistles and plenty of energy and noise. So we got a good number of cars honking support and taking leaflets, plus some pedestrians. And talking to one not very sympathetic worker who came out of the dealership – who questioned the point of us being there and complained “we’re not Ford, we’re just a dealership who sell their cars”! – she confirmed that, though management don’t work weekends, they would have been informed by e-mail of our presence.”

A New Deal

While the 70-80 active Enfield ex-workers had been maintaining occupation and then picketing the other nearly 200 ex-workers had been passively waiting at home (or seeking other work). When a new improved deal was then announced, many of these passive 200 suddenly reappeared to find out what was on offer, causing understandable resentment. The improved offer was in response to a threat from the sacked Visteon workers to begin picketting the profitable Ford low emission engine plant at Bridgend – the one Ford UK plant still running at full capacity and an essential part of their supply chain. This apparently followed a meeting of Ford Unite convenors in London, where it had been arranged to send delegations of ten ex-workers each from the three plants.

Ford found this more threatening than the previous solitary visits to Ford plants to ask Ford workers to black Visteon products – they didn’t like the idea of ex-Visteon people actually trying to picket out Ford workers. This brought Ford to the negotiating table; they brought the Chairman and CEO of Ford Europe to negotiate with the Joint General Secretary of Unite – Unite then told the ex-workers to call off the Bridgend picket.

There may have also been pressure from the UK government on Ford to offer an improved deal; if Ford-Visteon were to set a precedent for companies of avoiding all financial obligations in such workplace closures this would massively increase the amount the state would have to pay out in benefits in future to sacked workers. (Whereas if workers receive redundancy payouts they cannot claim benefits until that money has been spent – the state specifies how long one can ‘reasonably’ be expected to live on specific sums. So one cannot just blow the redundancy on a flash car and holidays in the sun, then stroll into the dole office expecting money. Unfortunately…) As other global motor giants crash, Ford may also have taken into account their position as, at present, the comparatively healthy survivor of the car industry. If they are to maintain this dominant position, they may feel the need to maintain a minimum reputation as an employer who pays up in the eyes of present and future employees.

While the new offer was being considered, some supporters organised a Mayday picket of KPMG, the accountancy firm administrating the receivership procedure of Visteon. They would decide how much all the creditors, including the ex-workers, would get from remaining assets. The weather was kind, and a sunny day found us outside their offices with around 60 people; a small mobile sound system also turned up with music and some Ford-Visteon ex-workers used its microphone to express their disgust at their treatment. A leaflet was distributed;
KPMG: Those who helped make the crisis now profit from it 
KMPG are one of the biggest accountancy companies in the world, offering ‘creative auditing’, profit laundering and tax avoidance advice to big business (http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/Davosspeech.pdf) They are currently facing a $1billion lawsuit for malpractices in the US subprime market that contributed to the present economic crisis. Now they are acting as ‘administrators’ for Ford-Visteon motor company – helping to rob sacked employees of their redundancy pay and pensions. This is why we are picketing KPMG today.” […]
Putting people into misery: KPMG are protecting the motor giants’ profits by witholding what is owed to the workers, threatening their homes and futures -Some workers now face repossession orders and many others could lose their homes too, if Ford, Visteon and KPMG get away with their dirty tricks.” […]
KPMG’s job is to protect the profits of capitalists at the expense of those who create the wealth- all through the dispute, they have rejected the workers’ claims and demands, using the same excuses as the Ford-Visteon bosses that “The company is insolvent. Ford and Visteon UK are completely separate companies”. KPMG have used threats of injunctions and sought possession orders in court against the workers’ factory occupations.
Support the workers! But the sacked Ford-Visteon workers are bravely standing up to Ford, Visteon and KPMG- not just for themselves, but for all of us affected by the recession. The attempted theft of their redundancy pay and pensions is how many bosses are sacking and robbing workers-with suitable advice from the likes of KPMG, of course. So the Ford-Visteon workers fight is the fight of all vulnerable workers – support them!”

The vote on the offer

Prior to voting, Enfield workers had the details of the deal read out to them by convenors, and some saw a handwritten version of its points. In their haste to get the vote passed and get this regrettable outbreak of industrial unrest concluded so they could go back the smooth and tidy bureaucratic functions of trade unionism, it was too much to expect the union to type and print out a copy for each worker to study and so vote on their long-term financial futures in the most informed way. The vote on the deal was deliberately arranged by the union so that Enfield and Basildon voted on it on the Friday, May 1st; then Belfast, still in occupation and with a more militant reputation, would vote on the Sunday. So, inevitably, the acceptance of the deal at Enfield and Basildon was designed to encourage acceptance at the Belfast vote. All plants did vote acceptance; the Enfield vote was 178 to 5 and Basildon was 159 to 0. Belfast voted 147 to 34.

Soon after the euphoria of the securing of an improved deal and the acceptance vote, workers began to wonder what exactly they had voted for. The normal shift patterns workers had been on for years had changed in the last months leading up to the plant closure – when workers were working shorter weeks – and these shift patterns were used as part of the calculation of payments. So no one was clear how it would all add up for them. Since then, workers seemed to have gained a clearer idea and, rightly see it as a partial victory – and worth the struggle. They have won as much as 10 times the original offer. But one small group of ex-workers – ‘CCRs’ employed after Visteon took over(4) – had inferior non-Ford contracts and so were given smaller payments. Some workers – both CCRs and ex-Ford – saw this as unnecessarily divisive and blamed both Ford-Visteon and union bosses for this; but, still, there was some resentment between workers about the disparity and at the failure by the rest of the workers to stick it out for a uniform deal (though at Belfast it was rumoured that other workers would each donate £300 to compensate for the shortfall in CCR payments). It’s unfortunate that some are leaving the dispute with such feelings. Part of the reason for this is probably;
1) through the dispute workers didn’t hold enough regular general meetings so they could insist on being fully informed of what was developing and could discuss it between themselves as a whole group. So, eg, at Enfield cliques around certain gates formed (people tending to always be picketting on the same gates), without enough contact/debate between all workers.
2) Prior to the vote, the union didn’t give people a printed document of settlement terms and time enough to consider the deal, discuss and seek advice on it and what it meant for each individual and for different groups of ex-workers. This rushing through of acceptance was clearly deliberate by the union, as was the arrangement whereby Belfast voted after Enfield & Basildon.

Remaining outstanding issues are; the ex-workers’ pensions – this will be decided by a (possibly 2 year-long) court case, unfortunately conducted on workers’ behalf by the union’s so-far incompetent (but no-doubt expensive) lawyers. If little comes of this, ex-workers have been led to expect to receive 60-90% compensation of their pension from a government scheme. But, whereas the pension would be paid from age 58, government compensation begins only at 65. (A more recent calculation has suggested that workers may only get 45% of their original pension under this scheme. As usual, the union has been slow in informing itself and its members of the accurate facts of the pensions issue.)

Rob Williams, a militant union convenor at another spun-off plant, Linamar (formerly Visteon) in Swansea, was sacked for his support of the sacked Ford/Visteon workers. (He was visiting other workplaces encouraging support for the dispute, though this was presumably done only through union channels at convenor level rather than directly appealing to the workforce.) Williams then barricaded himself in his office and workers walked out in his support; he was eventually reinstated under suspension. Shortly after he was permanently sacked. Management removed the door to his office to prevent another barricading and foremen threatened workers with the sack if they walked out again (see; http://libcom.org/news/swansea-union-convenor-sacked-supporting-fordvisteon-workers-28042009). A support campaign has been organised demanding his reinstatement and Linamar workers in Swansea have voted 139-19 (with a turn out of 88%) for an indefinite strike to force Williams’ reinstatement. Probably also prompted by wider issues, such as recent management intimidation, looming redundancies etc, the strike is due to start shortly (In fact on was Rob Williams reinstated on 10th june due to the threat of strike action).

The business of unions as mediators and defenders of capitalist exploitation 

This dispute shows, once again, the contradictions and limits of a rank’n’file level of unionism; shop steward and convenor positions – often taken by the most militant workers – must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy’s organisational interests. Workers often see the union as an organisational framework giving them a collective identity and protective strength; and on a day to day level it often does so, within existing conditions and agreements. What workers often don’t acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength is their own power mediated by the union structure as its representation – and therefore limited by it; a power that has the potential to conflict with and go beyond both the control of their employers and their union leaders. This conflict was made explicit in this dispute when many workers saw that the union was more interested in doing things through its own bureaucratic channels over and above their heads while giving no practical help to the struggle on the ground. This was undoubtably a mixture of bureaucrats’ instinctive dislike for spontaneous outbursts of workers’ unrest – which threaten the smooth functioning and efficient reputation of unions – and an attitude whereby bureaucrats assume they’re the experts who always know best how to handle these situations. But it was also indicative of a class relation; unions are generally run today primarily as financial service brokers – “negotiating deals on insurance, mortgages and pensions, medical cover, holidays and car breakdown services” etc – and investment funds with a sideline in industrial arbitration. Unite boss Derek Simpson, close friend of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, earns more than the PM. A free £800,000 house for life, nearly £200,000 of pay and benefits, 17% pay rises etc, he stays in £400 a night hotel rooms when on union business. Undoubtedly Gordie and Del have discussed how best to manage worker unrest during the present crisis in the best interests of the capitalist system that rewards them so well for their management.

Unions are partly an organisational manifestation of the immediate limits of workers’ own aspirations, values and confidence (and, under normal circumstances, usually the limits of the actual realistic possibilities in a given situation – workers do want a deal negotiated). Often stewards are the most militant and pro-strike of the workforce. By their participation workers animate unions.

The potential struggle against union domination is one within and between workers to overcome the contradiction of being labour power bought and sold and moving beyond that; but workers have to live and eat this side of the revolution! They don’t just accept unions because they’re naive/lack consciousness – alongside their cynicism, they know unions deliver something and to be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions. (Those employers who want union-free workplaces want to be free of certain union-mediated obligations.)

Any real break by workers with unions will come from confronting the limits of these contradictions in practice – and, insofar as it occurs within a unionised workforce, will probably occur as something emerging out of the union and the role of union militants/stewards (as a radicalisation of stewards and/or a confrontation with their role). That doesn’t mean one has to advocate a struggle within unions (though rank’n’filism etc inevitably occurs) – it means recognising that workers’ power is expressed within union structures, but is not inevitably forever bounded by the limits of union forms. It spills over, makes partial breaks, is usually reincorporated or lapses into a new form of mediation. And we seek to encourage that break further in real struggles – as a development of taking control of our own struggles rather than passively accepting the representation of union or other mediation specialists. Most of the time that occurs at most on a small scale so we are limited by the existing mediation process.

The ability to pursue interests and demands within the union form – and for the form to at the same time function as a limit on radical developments – is a key to understanding its continued strength.

A real workplace radicalisation would see workers not only in conflict with management and union bosses – but also some conflict between stewards and workers, ie, between those stewards and other workers for and against confronting/organising against the union – and also would mean workers confronting their own fears and lack of confidence in making these breaks, confronting their own habits of ‘leaving it to the experts’ – be they union officials or perhaps even the future emerging specialist council delegates of workers councils set up in radical opposition to unions. (In the Russian Revolution, for example, there was a ‘bureaucratisation from below’ as well as from the ruling party above; factory, district & soviet committee delegates spent more and more time away from the workplace on delegate business and so gradually became permanent representatives/bureaucrats.)

So the working class doesn’t only have to defeat external enemies, it has to confront and overcome what internally perpetuates its existence as the working class; the above-mentioned fears and lack of confidence, old habits and structures and their accompanying values, thought patterns, hierarchies etc. Some of these questions were hinted at during the Visteon dispute – but things never developed far enough to really confront these contradictions. This is not just a remote ‘question of revolutionary strategy’ – it is a concrete question of how most effectively to conduct struggles now. Under present conditions this inevitably often means confronting union control of struggles – and it is this that has potentially radical implications.

After 48 days – on Monday 18th May the Ford-Visteon workers ended the dispute at all 3 plants. Partial though the victory is, and with all the limits and weakness it contained, the struggle is highly significant. The ex-workers have achieved more than might have been expected (particularly after Enfield ended their occupation, and despite the absence of solidarity action by other car workers). Despite the pensions uncertainty, under present conditions and compared to most UK labour disputes of the last 25 years it is a pretty good result; and it sends a much more encouraging signal to workers who will face similar situations.

– A supporter

June 2009

(Thanks to Frank, Conor, Georgia & others who provided info.)

For various documents and comments on the dispute, see;

http://libcom.org/search/node/visteon

http://libcom.org/tags/visteon-occupation

Footnotes

1) 17 or so Enfield workers were not sacked but kept on by Visteon. The plan was that they would be used later to prepare stock and machinery for removal from the factory. But in the meantime some of these workers were involved in the occupation and picketing – and when the company called them in to work the ex-workers and supporters group responded by circulating a general call-out which brought a larger presence on the picket lines. All the workers (but one, a manager?) refused to cross the picket line, rendering their skills useless to Ford-Visteon.

2) Convenors are workers elected/appointed from the stewards in large factory complexes with different shops and processes.The nearest equivalent in other workplaces would be branch secretary (the branch may or may not cover a single workplace). So the difference relates to whether a union is organised by workplace or branch. Basically, the branch secretary or convenor have a direct link to the union regional structure and gain legitimacy and influence from that relationship, a legitimacy not so easily gained by a steward. Convenors and branch secretaries are usually entitled to varying levels of paid time off for union duties. Historically, shop stewards’ committees gained their legitimacy from the rank’n’file power they wielded, which forced the district and regional union officials to take notice of the shopfloor. The decision-making process in Enfield illustrates how much that relatively independent power has been eroded and so the terms do not have quite the same resonance these days. In times past convenors apparently worked the day shift and were compensated for loss of shift allowance by levies raised on the shop floor.

3) For example, when the Enfield occupation ended, there had been very little recent presence of the SWP around the plant. But they put a general call out to members to attend: As the occupiers came out, the SWP – never ones to miss an opportunist photo-opportunity – swamped the crowd with their placards and chanted ‘the workers united will never be defeated’. Under the circumstances, this had a hollow and ironic ring. It began to feel, as nearly every strike has in the past 20+ years – like one more predictable stitch up by union bureaucrats – more interested in helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis than feeling the need to win even modest gains for workers.”  (an excerpt from this account)

4) CCR stands for Competitive Cost Rate, apparently introduced for newer employees at Visteon to relate their pay to the going current rate in the industry, not the pay of Visteon staff on existing or Ford mirrored terms and conditions. The argument of the ex-Visteon CCRs appeared to be that the union was negligent in allowing these differentials to develop for what was presumably the same job.

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Postscript: The Visteon workers from four plants faced a long fight to recover large chunks of their pensions which were lost to them when the company went into administration. Five years later a settlement was reached.

This re-post is dedicated the only occupier of the Visteon plant who was not a Visteon worker, Alan Woodward, a veteran union activist and socialist and (among so much else) founding member of past tense’s friends the Radical History Network of Northeast London. Alan was one of the first on the spot after the occupation started and remained inside for the duration. He died in October 2012, and we miss him. His account of the Enfield occupation is also well worth a read.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s employment history: unemployed workers occupy Edmonton factory, 1921.

After World War 1, with the end of the war economy, and the de-mobbing of millions of soldiers and sailors from the armed forces, Britain (and much of Europe) sank into recession, with mass unemployment, poverty hardship the main reward working class people received for supporting and fighting in the war.

However, the end of the war had also thrown up revolution, mutiny, mass movements aiming not just at fighting for a bigger slice of the social pie, but a whole new arrangement of society.

While attempts at revolution shook Russia, Germany, Hungary, in the UK, one of the biggest movements that arose in the post-war years was that of the unemployed. Originating in local committees of the unemployed, struggling for livable levels of relief (the dole), and support for those out of work and their families, and against the harsh social control the workless were then subject to, by 1921 the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was born.

Many of the committees were based on groups of ex-servicemen, out work and angry after years of the trenches…
… but the movement was also very much a continuation of the pre-war industrial unrest of 1910-14, the wartime shop stewards’ struggles, and, to some extent, reunited the strands of the socialist movements divided by the war.

One of the early campaigns the unemployed committees focused on was against the working of overtime in factories, arguing that those out of work could be employed instead of existing workers doing longer hours. In 1921, in London, the main tactic was to invade workplaces where overtime was being worked and convene meetings of the workforce to argue for an overtime ban and the hiring of those on the dole to instead.

Wal Hannington, national organizer of the NUWM, who organised the raid with Lilian Thring, takes up the story:

“The success of these raids on the smaller firms encouraged us to tackle the big factories. The first big firm to be tackled was one at Edmonton, where approximately 1500 men and women were employed. The raid took place on 15th December, 1921. It was carefully prepared, all the necessary details concerning the plan of the building being ascertained beforehand. A much larger body of raiders was needed to carry out this job. We used about 150, and great care had to be taken in mobilising them near the works in order not to arouse suspicion. I was in charge of the raiding party, and at 4.15 pm I gave the signal for all raiders to rush the main entrance of the firm, enter, and close the gates behind them. The commissionaires on the gates were taken unawares and with the first inrush they attempted to slam the gates to, but the raiders tackled them while the rest of their colleagues entered.”

Once inside, the gates were firmly shut and the telephone exchange near the entrance was captured by a group detailed for this task; but subsequent events proved that we still had left a loophole for communications with the police. The bulk of the raiders proceeded to the main workshops. We selected a shop where there were millions of finished fragile articles [lightbulbs] and where considerable damage would have been done if the police had been brought in and caused trouble.”

Sympathetic engineers inside the factory switched off the production line. Lilian Thring went to address a meeting to the many women working in the factory.

“The news of the raid spread rapidly through the works and the workers gathered in large numbers to hear what we had to say. Many expressed warm sympathy for our stand against overtime. After the meeting had been in progress half an hour we received a message asking us to send a deputation to the main office to interview the responsible officials of the firm. The deputation was courteously received by the management who stated that they were very desirous of getting on with the interview as quickly as possible in order to facilitate the withdrawal of the unemployed from the factory. Whilst the interview was proceeding a knock came at the door and we were informed that 200 police had been brought into the factory. They were, however, not interfering with the men but were just standing about awaiting orders from the management. After a further quarter of an hour’s discussion with the management, the principal of the firm and another manager decided to sign the following agreement which we put to them:

  1. That all overtime should cease at Christmas.
  2. That in the event of the management contemplating the working of overtime at some future date, before putting it into operation they should first explore all channels to find suitable workers by applying to the local labour exchange, local trade-union branches and the local unemployed organization.

The main argument of the management had been that they had to work overtime because they were unable to obtain suitable workers. We, of course, had strongly disputed this, but the agreement which they gave us met with our approval and when the results of our interview were reported to the men in the shop it was accepted without dissent. We then asked the manager if the workers would be paid for the time which they had been stopped working by the raid. We received a promise that they would be paid and then the raiders formed up four abreast and marched out of the works, singing the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’. As they came out they were cheered by a huge crowd who had heard of the raid and had gathered outside.”

This phase of the unemployed movement was by far the most successful, creative and autonomous. Organised locally, at the grassroots, addressing issues shared by millions but at an immediate level. Increasingly, however, through the 1920s, the NUWM became more centralised, controlled by members of the Communist Party who had always formed the central plank of the movement… The creative, local focus was also more and more submerged into a culture of mass national stunts like the hunger marches, which drew mass attention but absorbed vast amounts of energy. However the unemployed movement of the 1920s and ’30s represents a movement of huge importance, especially in their constant attempt to link waged and unwaged workers, their challenge to daily austerity as it was implemented directly in people’s lives, and an attempt to work out how to share out the meagre resources allotted to us under capitalism while also fighting for more…

Two books worth reading on the NUWM: Unemployed Struggles, 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve In Silence, Richard Croucher. 

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online