A history of the occupation of the Plessey capacitor plant in 1982 after its closure was announced by 220 women workers.
The occupation of the Bathgate plant of Plessey Capacitors in 1982 provides an interesting example of collective action taken by a mainly female workforce against their multinational employer. This particular dispute has important implications both for the involvement of women in industrial action, and for the debate about the most effective strategies to counter the power of multinational corporations, particularly in the case of plant closure.
The material presented here is based on a series of interviews carried out in the period August to November 1983. Time constraints prevented interviewing the workforce on a large scale. However, attempts were made to interview one or more representatives of the various categories of workers involved in the dispute. Thus, the three most prominent shop stewards (two female and one male) were interviewed, as were 12 ordinary workers involved in the occupation. This group included workers who had been re-employed after the occupation, as well as workers who had been made redundant. One full-time union official closely involved in the occupation was interviewed, as were two members of a group which acted as a support to the Plessey workers. Attempts were made to interview a representative of the Plessey management and a representative of the Engineering Employers' Federation, of which Plessey is a member, but both refused to be interviewed.
The workers of the Plessey plant chose to occupy their factory in response to its proposed closure, rather than to negotiate with the company over the closure through official trade union channels. Why was such a tactic chosen? This can be considered in terms of three main conditions which the form of industrial action chosen had to satisfy. Firstly, the action had to generate the support and active involvement of the majority of workers threatened with redundancy.
Secondly, it had to take account of the rationale behind the operation of multinational corporations like Plessey, and therefore had to have the potential of challenging directly that rationale. Thirdly, the form of action chosen had to be able to overcome the usual limitations of official trade union action with respect to closure. The Plessey workers' assessment of the sit-in as a strategy which could fulfil these three conditions will be looked at in more detail. Some evaluation will be made of the potential gains for workers in choosing direct action rather than negotiation in response to the policies of multinational corporations, as well as any limitations in doing so. Before this, however, the dispute must be set in context by looking at the main activities of the Plessey Company worldwide, particularly at their changing corporate strategies in recent years, as well as the setting up of the Plessey plant in Bathgate, the characteristics of its workforce and its industrial relations.
THE PLESSEY COMPANY
Plessey began as a small jig and tool-making firm in East London in 1917. The company expanded steadily in the years up to World War II, and after the war a series of mergers diversified the company into such areas as machine tool control, hydraulics and consumer electricals. Further mergers took place in the 1960s, bringing Plessey into the areas of telecommunications, numerical control, radar and semiconductors. Today, Plessey's business activity is made up of three main divisions: telecommunications and office systems, electronics systems and engineering. The company operates in 130 countries, having research and development establishments in 13 countries. However, this does not put Plessey in the top league of multinational corporations by the standards of its international competitors like IBM. Plessey is the fourth largest UK electronics company (TURU Report, 1982), and ranks 27th in the league table of leading British manufacturing multinationals (Labour Research, 1978). Sales in the United Kingdom account for 51 per cent of Plessey's turnover, with its next largest market being the USA, with 14 per cent of sales. Continental Europe and Asia follow closely behind. The group also has sales and subsidiaries in Africa, including South Africa, Australia and Latin America.
Plessey's sales figures in the UK are largely made up of state contracts — such contracts provided Plessey with 76.4 per cent of its profits on 72.4 per cent of sales in 1981-82. These contracts had become increasingly important to the company since 1971 (excluding the years 1977-79, when cuts in Post Office expenditure detrimentally affected Plessey's sales to the state). Government departments and British Telecom (formerly the Post Office) are Plessey's primary customers of electronic systems and equipment and telecommunications respectively. Many of the state's purchases from the Plessey Company are defence-related.
In 1975 Plessey employed approximately 55 180 workers in the UK. By 1981 the Plessey workforce had fallen to 39 922, a fall of around 35 per cent. The reasons behind such a massive fall in employment levels will be looked at in some depth later.
PLESSEY CAPACITORS, BATHGATE
Bathgate, with its population of 14 000, lies in West Lothian, some 18 miles from Edinburgh. The town has undergone some major changes in recent years. From being a lively, prosperous town in the 1960s and early 1970s, it has become one of the major casualties of the recession in Scotland, with its present unemployment rate approaching 30 per cent.
The early post-war period from 1947-57 was a boom time for Bathgate in employment terms: its shale oil, coal, iron, steel and paper industries were prospering. Added to this, in 1947, the Telegraph Condenser Company set up in the town to manufacture condensers for electrical and electronic machinery. The company was the first major employer in the area not dependent on the exploitation of natural resources. Further, its establishment linked the local economy to one of the post-war boom industries, and brought increased employment opportunities for women, an important factor in an area dominated by traditional industries, where employment was almost wholly a male preserve. This was followed by the setting up of the British Motor Company (now British Leyland) in Bathgate in 1961, with a target labour force of 5600.
In 1965, however, TCC was taken over by Plessey Capacitors, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Plessey Ltd, in a spate of amalgamations within the British telecommunications industry. The takeover incorporated the Bathgate plant and its workforce into a major international manufacturing operation in the increasingly competitive electronics industry. Employment at the plant rose from 1400 in 1965 to around 2400 by 1973. Around 75 per cent of the employees at the plant were women involved in the production of capacitors. A capacitor is an electric or electronic device which stores an electric charge, and which is incorporated into all kinds of electric and electronic equipment, such as transistor radios, washing machines, electricity sub-stations and on high-speed electric trains. The Bathgate factory consisted of four plants producing four lines of capacitors and some related products.
In the years before the occupation, Plessey was considered by many of its workers at Bathgate to be a relatively good employer in terms of wages and conditions, comparing favourably with other plants in the area. In contrast to many of the electronics plants in Scotland, trade unions were accepted by the Plessey management at Bathgate, and the workforce was heavily unionised. The majority of assembly workers were members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, while the staff employees were represented by TASS, the white collar associate of AUEW. A small number of workers were represented by the Electrical, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union and the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff.
A distinction must be made here between official trade union representatives and shop stewards. Shop stewards in British industrial relations are generally elected representatives of a workgroup, who deal with union and work matters at a workplace level. These are unpaid representatives, who, in the AUEW, constitute the intermediate level between full-time, paid officials of the union, and the union's rank and file members. Many trade unions rely to a considerable extent on shop stewards, and have arrangements for granting them credentials. At Plessey, the 20 female and six male shop stewards at the plant prior to the occupation were granted full recognition and facilities by the company. In the remainder of this case study, shop steward refers to unpaid workplace representatives, while trade union officials refers to the full-time, paid officers of the union. The term 'convenor', which will be used later on, refers to the senior steward in a plant where a number of stewards exist.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Bathgate plant became the victim of Plessey's changing corporate strategies. In the post-war period Plessey followed a policy of mergers, expansion and diversification, such that between 1962 and 1971, the company's turnover grew fivefold. Nevertheless, Plessey's profitability record was poor, with earnings per share in 1971 the same as they had been in 1963. In response to this, Plessey began to pursue a policy of consolidation and 'strategic divestment' in the early 1970s, which involved the elimination of all those businesses considered to be outside the mainstream activities of the company, such as turntables, hydraulics, sheet metals and capacitors, in order to release resources for more lucrative areas of production, such as office systems and defence equipment. It was not considered important that in some cases these items were being produced profitably — as Elder (1982) points out, on the basis of an interview with a senior Plessey executive, the issue had to be looked at from a corporate standpoint, where the key issue was total corporate profit position, not individual plant profitability. Thus, the company appear to have based their decision to move into other areas of production on the expectation that a higher rate of profit for the company as a whole could be secured.1
As pointed out earlier, the employment consequences of the strategic divestment policy were immense, with UK employment falling by 35 per cent. The Bathgate plant did not escape rationalisation, and through both voluntary and compulsory redundancy, employment levels fell steadily from 1973, when 2400 workers were employed, until 1981, when only 330 workers were left at the plant. This was the size of the workforce at the time of the occupation.
There was little worker reaction against the redundancies, although many of the stewards argued that redundancies should be resisted. As one of the women interviewed told me:
There were big rows because we couldn't stop people volunteering for redundancy. The shop stewards wanted them to fight, and not sell their jobs, but they didn't take any notice. . . . people could get jobs in Edinburgh then. . . . it's different now.
It is interesting to speculate on why no worker action was taken in response to previous job losses. The women themselves argued that at the time of these redundancies, the surrounding labour market was less depressed, and thus the effects of redundancies may not have been so severe. Further, some of the women indicated that the closure announcement destroyed any hopes held previously that cutbacks in production and job losses could be reversed at a later date when the effects of world recession had lessened. It may also have been the case that the example of the Lee Jeans sit-in influenced the decision to resist closure.2 In December 1981 Plessey announced that the Bathgate capacitor division would close in March 1982: on the grounds that the capacitor market was flooded; that the plant itself was technologically obsolete; and that the factory was making losses of £0.5m per annum, despite a significant investment programme in recent years. This announcement set in motion an occupation by over 220 workers. The occupation lasted eight weeks, and ended with a takeover by Wedge International Holdings BV, the company to whom the entire capacitor division of Plessey, both in the UK and abroad, was sold. The takeover retained 62 jobs at the plant, while the rest of the workforce were made redundant.
The occupation is described in detail in Findlay (1984). What will be considered here is the rationale behind the decision to occupy the factory, and the way in which the strategy was put into operation. An assessment will also be made of the gains made by the women during their struggle, both in terms of job retention and in terms of the development of their own attitudes and beliefs.
THE DECISION TO OCCUPY
Some worker action to resist the closure was inevitable, given the strength of feeling amongst the Plessey workforce at the time of the closure announcement. The continual decline of Bathgate's traditional industries and its major manufacturing establishments, such as British Leyland, had led to a situation in 1981 in which 3350 men and 1635 women were unemployed in the Bathgate area. Taking Bathgate and the nearby towns of Broxburn and Livingston together, male unemployment stood at 21.2 per cent, while official female unemployment stood at 19.0 per cent. Unemployment was a likely prospect for many of the workers:
I was only forty-five, and I was thinking, where will I get another job at my age, with so many unemployed?
Bathgate and its surrounding areas are made up of relatively small, tightly knit communities, and concern for the future of those communities, particularly their youth, pervaded the views of all the women interviewed:
We had watched the place go down through the years and there wasn't any other employment in the area. . . . this was the major employer for women in the area. . . . so the women had said, enough is enough. We all thought the same — where are our kids going to work?
This concern was especially strong among the older women, many of whom were approaching retirement age, having worked in the plant for more than 30 years. For these women, it would have been in their own self-interest to have taken their redundancy payments, but they decided to support the sit-in for the sake of maintaining employment in the area, thus risking the loss of their redundancy entitlement.
However, the reason put forward most strongly by the Plessey workforce to justify resisting plant closure was a belief in their own profitability. The workers were very scathing of Plessey's claims of heavy losses and technologically obsolete equipment, and were backed up in their assessment by a report on plant profitability by the Trade Union Research Unit of Glasgow College of Technology (TURU,1982). The report pointed out that while there were two other capacitor manufacturing operations in Scotland (Hughes Microelectronics in Glenrothes and Sprague Electrical in Galashiels, both foreign-owned), their product ranges were narrower than Bathgate's, and their combined sales only half of Bathgate's. Plessey Bathgate was therefore Scotland's major manufacturer of capacitors. The Report agreed with the workers' assessment that the machinery at Bathgate was not technologically obsolete. It was felt that the manufacturing equipment installed at Bathgate was comparable, in terms of efficiency, with that used by other manufacturers. Indeed, £200 000 worth of new machinery had been installed at Bathgate as recently as September 1981. The Report argued that Plessey's strategy of trying to build up defence contracts and communications systems and software, while at the same time phasing out its manufacture of microelectronics and components, including capacitors, was extremely risky. It also argued that to sell out the major British-owned capacitor operation into foreign control or cut back or close Bathgate, the major manufacturing base of that operation, made no sense for the electronics components industry or for the Scottish or UK economy.
At the time of the closure announcement the order books of the Bathgate plant were full and growing. The annual accounts of Plessey Capacitors, Bathgate, show sales in 1981 of £6 575 000 —an increase of £128 000 on the 1980 sales figures. The annual profit and loss statements for Plessey Capacitors do in fact show losses on sales for all three years that accounts exist (that is, 1979, 1980, 1981). However, the accompanying notes to the accounts suggest that these were paper losses produced by the way the accounting was done. For instance: in 1979, the Bathgate firm made provision for 'product rationalisation, including redundancy and evacuation of building costs' which effectively converted a profit on trade for that year into a substantial loss. To the workers, this indicated that the company was deliberately engineering the apparent lack of profitability of the plant.
The workers also argued that the annual accounts would not give a true picture of the profitability of the Bathgate plant because they believed that Bathgate's capacitors were being 'sold' to other Plessey plants at transfer prices which were set at levels detrimental to Bathgate, so that some of Bathgate's actual profits were being transferred to other plants. Furthermore, they felt that the company was deliberately diverting orders to other plants to the detriment of the Bathgate plant. Certain long-standing orders had ceased to be placed at Bathgate:
This didn't ring true in the capacitor world. In the capacitor industry you have to keep ahead with new designs, but old designs keep on going — they trickle out — they don't dry up at once. I just didn't believe them — there was a lot of our work going down to England, and Plessey were deliberately diverting orders.
An evaluation of the annual accounts was made by members of the Edinburgh group of the Conference of-Socialist Economists, taking into account possible transfer pricing. This suggests that a modest profit was actually being made at the Bathgate plant, even during a period of severe recession.
The Plessey workers totally disbelieved the reasons for closure given by the company, and this was a major contribution to the strength of feeling that the decision should be resisted. The workers believed, and were eventually proved right, that Plessey's aim was to move out of capacitor manufacture altogether. For the Plessey workers, then, it can be argued that a belief in their own profitability and efficiency played a greater part in bringing about resistance than did any conceptions of a natural right to employment.
One identifiable group of workers, however, was not convinced by the reasons put forward for resisting the closure of the plant. Out of a group of 80 skilled and semi-skilled men employed in the plant, only 12 agreed to stay and fight with the women workers. Two alternative views were put forward on why this should be the case. One steward argued that the skilled men at Plessey had 'a track record of weakness and lack of political clarity with respect to their situation. . . . with very little trade union principles'; another explained the refusal of the skilled men to support their action as being a response to previous hostilities which had existed between the toolmakers and particular stewards: 'skilled men are very petty, they always have been. They won't be dictated to by semi-skilled people'. Other workers argued that the skilled men thought it unlikely that their action would achieve any measure of success, and they may have believed that having a skill made it more likely that they would obtain alternative employment. Whatever their reasons, the failure of the male workers as a whole, skilled or semi-skilled, to support their fellow workers, indicates the traditional problems of trying to build solidarity where internal divisions exist, based on skill, sex or some other factor, among the workforce.
The workers realised that some extraordinary action was needed if Plessey was to be forced to reconsider its decision. They considered that the factory's machinery and stocks were still valuable assets for Plessey though the building itself belonged to the Scottish Development Agency. They decided that occupying the factory provided the best method of keeping control over the machinery and stocks. It was felt that to try to negotiate with Plessey through traditional trade union channels, or to try to block the removal of equipment and stocks from outside the plant would have proved ineffective: 'We couldn't go on a strike and we couldn't go on a go slow — what was the point?' Further, the idea of a sit-in had become popular due to the action taken by the women at Lee Jeans in 1981 — 'the idea was just there. . . . sit-ins seemed the natural thing to do'. Once the decision to occupy was made, the workers were encouraged by stewards to produce as much output as possible in the period between the closure announcement and the occupation, to boost their negotiating position. This enabled them to earn increased bonus payments, thus helping to ease the financial difficulties likely to occur when wages ceased to be paid. Also, by holding back work in the dispatch stage, the workers were increasing the value of the assets which they would control.
The decision on what action to take against Plessey was influenced by the workers' assessment of the most potentially effective ways of fighting multinational companies like Plessey. However, the decision was also conditioned by a belief on the part of some of the workers that conventional trade union tactics were of little use in dealing with multinational corporations. These issues have been dealt with elsewhere (Baldry et al., 1980). Such a choice may be more attractive to women workers, many of whom do not feel themselves to be wholly integrated into conventional trade union practices and forms of struggle.
THE ORGANISATION OF THE SIT-IN
One of the first tasks facing the 220 Plessey workers who occupied the plant was to overcome the practical difficulties involved in taking over a factory and maintaining it to a standard adequate for large numbers of people to live in for a lengthy period of time, while at the same time trying to carry on an industrial dispute, and gain support from other sections of the community. As may have been expected, most workers described the first few days of the sit-in as extremely chaotic:
We had to cover the factory 24 hours a day, and we needed someone on the factory gates at all times. We also had to find transport and organise cooking and cleaning. But the effort put in by the workers was absolutely tremendous. . . . people were willing to do shifts for the sit-in, but they never would have worked shifts for Plessey.
Since there were many tasks to be done, committees were set up to take charge of the workforce's finance; to establish contact with other workers and other trade unions; to speak at meetings in the surrounding communities; to cope with the large amount of correspondence which came in; and to collect funds from other organisations.
Each member of the working committee took charge of a specific task. There had to be people to share responsibility with the stewards — that's where a lot of things fall, with big shots trying to do everything themselves, instead of drawing all the people together.
Inevitably, it took a few days for any order to be arrived at, but most of those involved give the impression that the organisation of the sit-in was very effective. Serious attempts were made to involve the whole workforce in decision-making: mass meetings were held regularly and all of the major decisions were taken when the entire occupying force was present; no matter what shift was in progress when a meeting was held, the workers from all other shifts were called to the factory to attend. Further, in the views of the workers interviewed, most people were keen to make their opinions known, both during mass meetings and in the day-to-day conduct of the occupation, and were keen to become involved in the actual running of the sit-in, in the various areas specified earlier:
Everybody got their say. But the stewards did a good job and we were quite happy to follow their leadership.
The Plessey workers retained a high level of morale and a great feeling of solidarity and collective consciousness: workers dedicated a far greater proportion of their lives to the sit-in than would have been devoted to work, in most cases completely uprooting their domestic life in the process. Women, many of whom had never been involved in industrial action in their lives, were encouraged to go out and address public meetings, to visit other plants and ask for the support, both moral and financial, of other workers. Thus, there were many positive aspects of the Plessey occupation, no matter what its eventual material outcome. This involvement was important for many of the women:
We all got really involved as we got to understand more. . . . we were happy to get involved when we realised the degree of support we had, and we knew we were not fighting alone. I know the sit-in was successful in getting people involved. There was a definite feeling of everybody working together.
It is paradoxical that women are willing to undertake a form of industrial struggle which, more than other forms of action, disrupts their domestic life. Sit-ins require a great deal of workers' time and commitment. Since many women have a double burden, wage work and unpaid domestic labour, one might expect them to be less attracted to forms of action which make extra demands on their time. Participation in the Plessey occupation did involve added burdens for many women. These were twofold. Firstly, working shift rotas in the sit-in and looking after children proved to be particularly difficult.
Efforts were made to exclude women with children from the night shifts, since this may have led to problems of child-care. There is, however, no indication that any collective child-care was organised. Secondly, for some women, the attitudes of their husband's proved to be a source of anxiety:
A few women left as it [the sit-in] was causing family problems. . . . it was difficult to cope with families without a wage. Some got a lot of stick from their husbands and had to leave the sit-in to prevent domestic troubles. But there were many glowing examples of husbands' changing their attitudes.
However, although the women workers did believe that their domestic situation made participation in the sit-in more difficult, many of them also believed that women in general possess greater determination and stamina than men when faced with an adverse situation:
If women put their teeth into anything, and are really determined enough, they will exceed men at any time. . . . women are more determined than men will ever be, and they'll take more knocks than men.
Informal discussions with a group of women involved in the occupation indicated that the solidarity they felt may well have been engendered by a sense of common interest as women: the belief that they shared a common work and life situation. The awareness of women workers of the similar situation of other women workers, most of whom share similar domestic responsibilities, may foster attitudes of co-operation and mutual assistance. This can obviously be a great advantage during industrial disputes. Whatever the explanation of the fact that recent prominent sit-ins in Scotland have been carried out by women workers, the women of Lee Jeans, Plessey and many others, have clearly smashed the notion of women as passive workers. As one woman pointed out:
One of the achievements was that women were able to speak up for themselves, women that I would never have dreamt would have made a contribution at a union meeting, all had an opinion to give. . . . it puts a backbone into people.
Most of the occupations which have taken place in the UK in recent years have attracted considerable support for occupying workers from other sections of the labour movement. The Plessey occupation was no exception. Stewards from other Plessey plants in Britain were asked to elicit the support of their members for the workers' struggle at Bathgate. According to the Bathgate stewards, the response was heartening: regular financial contributions were made to the Bathgate strike fund, and representatives of the other workers were often present at the Bathgate plant to offer their moral support:
The other Plessey workers gave us a tremendous amount of support. . . . they showed great interest and levied their members to give us finance.
On another level, the workers at other Plessey plants in Britain took part in a one hour stoppage, then in a half-day stoppage to show their support for their fellow workers at Bathgate, as well as demonstrating outside Plessey headquarters in London. The Bathgate stewards believed that these actions alarmed the Plessey management: before the half-day stoppage, management at the English plants printed and distributed thousands of leaflets to their own workers, telling them that they should not support the Bathgate struggle. The Bathgate workers felt that this was an indication that the management were feeling pressurised:
In a way, the company must have realised that if we were getting support from other places, they might have the same problem on their hands later on.
Some of the workers had hoped that the company's employees outside Bathgate would call a full stoppage to support them. Others seemed more aware of the difficulties involved in such a course of action:
Some of the Bathgate plant was being transferred down south, so it meant jobs for them. . . . they weren't going
The dispute shows the contradictions involved in any attempt to co-ordinate protest between employees of the same company in different plants in different parts of the country, or across countries. While it may be in the workers' long-term interest to try to prevent policies which involve mass redundancies from being carried out, in the short term the increased job security which the closure of one plant may mean for another plant can be a source of division among workers (Haworth and Ramsay, 1984).
Despite the fact that the support of other Plessey workers was qualified, the Bathgate stewards argue that it was significant:
It was the first time Plessey factories had ever helped each other, and it hasn't happened since. There have been other redundancies and closures, but none of them even fought.
However, the workers involved in the occupation and subsequently re-employed in the Plessey plant do now show a great deal of solidarity with other workers' struggles, in the form of financial contributions to other strike funds and the offering of help and advice to other groups of workers. This appears to be in marked contrast with their behaviour prior to the occupation. It can be argued that for some of the Plessey workers at least, experience of collective struggle did enhance their belief in the need for labour solidarity to fight multinational corporations, and their consciousness of the resources which workers possess, although it may also have increased their awareness of the contradictions involved in attempts to extend solidarity among workers.
An attempt was made to co-ordinate pressure on Plessey internationally, by making contacts with the Plessey plant at Arco in Italy, a sister plant to the one in Bathgate. The Bathgate workers encountered difficulties in getting information on the Bathgate struggle to the Italian workforce, not least because the Italian management had provided their workforce with entirely misleading information on the dispute. Finally, the Bathgate workers sent a representative to Italy to inform the Italian workers directly of the occupation.
Since the occupation ended shortly after the contact was made, it was impossible to test whether the Italian workers would have taken direct action in support of their Bathgate colleagues. Many of the workers and shop stewards at Bathgate believed that a basis was there for extending the struggle to an international level, with the Italian workers refusing to accept machinery and stocks from the Bathgate plant, and perhaps pressurising the Plessey management through stoppages. This hope appears to have been based on a verbal commitment from the Italian workers to take some action on Bathgate's behalf.
Had the dispute continued, the hopes of the Bathgate workers might have been disappointed. The divisions which exist among workers at one plant can have a detrimental effect on solidarity, and this is compounded by divisions which exist between workers at different plants, even where these workers are employed by the same company. Such difficulties are magnified when attempts are made at international solidarity (Haworth and Ramsay, 1984). This is not to say that international labour solidarity is unachievable. However, such solidarity cannot be assumed to exist automatically.
Support in the United Kingdom for the Plessey women was not confined to Plessey employees. According to one worker: 'We caught the imagination of the trade union and labour movement in Scotland'. This certainly appears to be true. The Plessey workers received massive financial contributions: the ship workers, miners and others paid a levy from their wages each week into a strike fund, while many other workplaces carried out collections at regular intervals. Towards the end of the sit-in, the workers were receiving between £5000 and £6000 per week. Clearly, this was a crucial component in the ability of the workforce to continue with the sit-in. More importantly, however, the Plessey workers emphasised that support from other workers, mobilised in the main through informal shop steward networks, provided a tremendous boost to their morale:
This is what gave the women the will to fight on … they felt that to stop fighting wasn't only letting themselves down, it was letting down that whole labour movement as well. If we'd been left on our own, I don't know if we would have lasted eight weeks.
The dispute does show that the labour movement can elicit significant reserves of solidarity and support. However, there are constraints on such support: it will be forthcoming so long as other workers do not feel they are putting their jobs in jeopardy by offering support. Financial contributions and participation in demonstrations are unlikely to jeopardise jobs. However, strikes by other Plessey employees may indeed have threatened their jobs, and this may explain why such action was not taken.
The sit-in not only won the support of workers in other areas, but it also won the commitment of the Bathgate community. The realisation of the dire prospects facing the town contributed to the support which the townspeople showed the Plessey workers. Donations came from all sources to the plant: from local shopkeepers, families, pensioners, in the form of finance and provisions, and from the few factories which still existed in the area, particularly from British Leyland. The workers were also supported by their local regional and district councils, and by their Member of Parliament, Tarn Dalyell. The workers argued that the townspeople had realised the impact that the closure would have on the community, and on their children's prospects.
People could see the community going down and down. The British Leyland dispute was going on and everyone was worried there wasn't going to be any work left. It let the workers know that the people outside did care about them, and were appreciating the fight the workers were putting up.
It may be the case that the domestic roles of many women workers, such as shopping, involvement in local schools, youth and community organisations, and also in informal neighbourhood groups and kin groups, provide the foundation on which community support can be built, more so than is the case for male workers. Many women spend time and energy constituting these kinds of networks, and these may be of great significance in an industrial dispute, particularly where a dispute affects many members of the same community, as was the case at Bathgate.
THE ROLE OF FORMAL TRADE UNION STRUCTURES
In accordance with previously laid down procedures, the trade union officers were informed of the Plessey closure decision at around the same time as the workers. According to the AUEW Glasgow Divisional Officer, they were stunned at the news, and apprehensive about Bathgate's employment prospects in the future. Many of the leading members of the unions involved encouraged the workers to fight to save their jobs. However, this was before any specific form of industrial action had been decided on. Such a supportive position did not continue throughout the dispute.
Formally, the full-time trade union officials were not informed of the intended occupation until it took place, and thus were not party to the decision. However, it seems likely that certain officers of the union, with whom the workers had good relations, were told informally of the workers' intentions.
The main assistance given by the official trade union structure took the form of paying strike pay (although this was not paid until four weeks after the occupation began); helping to collect funds; commissioning a study on the reasons behind the plant's closure, and of the state of the capacitor industry in general; and attempting to provide legal advice for the workers (although in some cases this advice proved to be wrong). As far as the Glasgow Divisional Officer of the AUEW was concerned:
Whatever assistance was sought by the workforce, if it was physically possible to provide that assistance, whether it be financial, moral, legal or whatever, then it was given. That is what the trade union is for.
Some stewards and ordinary workers at Plessey disagreed with this view, as these comments indicate:
I thought the officials could have done a lot more. . . . they left an awful lot in the hands of the officials [stewards] here. They could have given us more support. We didn't see them doing anything. We always got the feeling they were too busy. I'm quite sure they could have done more. They should have played an active part in what was going on. As far as I'm concerned they wanted the dispute tidied up and wrapped in a bow and then they would have been quite happy.
It is worth quoting at length the comments of one trade union official when confronted with the views of the Plessey workers:
We live in a democracy and everybody is entitled to their opinion. Bearing in mind the conflict and confrontation people were faced with, in a situation like an occupation, or any form of industrial action. . . . you look at that kind of situation as you want to see it, irrespective of whether that may be the true position affecting everybody. The simple matter is that if indeed the membership were dissatisfied with the officials who were directly involved at a local level, or even at a national level for that matter, they have the opportunity at a future date to ensure that that official is no longer a representative of the union.
However, while trade union members may have the periodic opportunity to vote against any official with whose conduct they are dissatisfied, this can hardly be said to compensate for the lack of active support during a dispute, when such support is most necessary. Trade unions cannot afford to be complacent with regard to the feelings of sections of their membership if they are to retain support in the future.
The Plessey company used various tactics to put pressure on the workers occupying the factory, in attempts to end the occupation. At an early stage in the occupation, the Glasgow Herald newspaper reported the workers' fears that Plessey might organise a raid on the plant to snatch £650 000 worth of components for electronic circuits. These fears were fuelled by the appearance, on several occasions, of a Plessey helicopter circling above the plant. In their defence, the workers had piled up barrels and wooden palettes in readiness for scattering to prevent any helicopter landing.
On 12 February Plessey management left dismissal notices at the gatehouse of the factory for all of the workers involved in the occupation, informing them that they had been dismissed without any entitlement to redundancy payments. At the same time the company instructed telephone engineers to cut off all telephone lines at the factory, leaving the workers with only the payphone at their social club. Despite these mounting pressures, and even after the company had announced the dismissals on radio, and had intimated that the sit-in had cost the workers their redundancy payments, the workers unanimously reaffirmed their intention to continue the occupation.
It can be argued, however, that all these pressures had a far smaller effect on the workers than had the court action taken by Plessey against the occupying workers. For ordinary working people, the courts are an arena in which they have very little experience, and about which they appear to have great apprehension. The complex debate on the legal situation surrounding the Plessey occupation cannot be discussed here (for a detailed discussion, see Findlay, 1984). The attempts by Plessey to use the courts to evict the occupying workers, although ultimately unsuccessful, were significant in indicating that the owners of capital will resort to the power of the state to defend their property rights against perceived challenges by workers.
Negotiations between the unions with members involved in the Plessey occupation and the Plessey management began on 5 February 1982. The first real hint of any breakthrough came much later, however, on 8 March, when the union negotiating team attended talks at the London offices of the Arbitration and Conciliation Advisory Service on the invitation of the company. The talks were arranged to consider a proposed management buy-out plan, and also to discuss a possible takeover by Wedge International Holdings BV. At the end of these discussions a plan was outlined in which Arcot-ronics, a subsidiary of Wedge Holdings, proposed to take over part of the plant and employ around 80 workers on the condition that the occupation be terminated immediately.
However, at a mass meeting, the workers at Bathgate voted overwhelmingly to reject the Arcotronics takeover bid on the recommendation of their stewards. They were dissatisfied with the number of jobs on offer; they were not convinced that the takeover would prevent an asset-stripping operation by Plessey; and they did not believe that they had enough information on Arcotronics to warrant accepting its offer — as one shop steward pointed out, 'It was like asking you to take a house with no roof. Only seven days later, however, the Plessey workforce voted two to one to accept the Arcotronics takeover bid. The proposal had changed little since it had been on offer the previous week, except that Plessey had agreed to guarantee that the jobs would remain in existence for one year, by placing sufficient orders with Arcotronics. In the first bid the guarantee had been for three months only. Some of the Plessey workers have very strong views on why the takeover was finally accepted so soon after being overwhelmingly rejected. The Convenor at the plant believed that in the week separating the two offers, the trade union officials worked to undermine the sit-in. According to this steward, the officials were talking privately to key shop stewards, and winning them over to their position, 'They were really saying, "That's all you're going to get; reject this and you'll lose everything'". Other rank and file workers argued that the unions, along with management, 'had an almost common objective to bring the occupation to a halt as quickly as possible'.
We felt they [the union officials] could have got more jobs than 80, but they said it was over. They weren't for us, they were for the firm. . . . more on the management side than on our side.
They wanted to get us off their back really — they were paying us strike pay and unions don't like to pay strike pay.
They [the union officials] said they did their best, but you've just got their word for that.
For these workers the sit-in was still going strong: the interim interdict and order for eviction against the workers had been recalled; the Italian factory had indicated some willingness to refuse to allow any of the Bathgate machinery into their plant; and financial contributions were flowing in at a rate of £6000-£7000 per week.
However, many of the occupying workers held opposing views to these, as indicated by the outcome of the vote. Many workers accepted the interpretation of the situation given by the union officials:
They had taken us to the end of the road, and there was nowhere else they could take us.
The unions were persuading us to accept the takeover — I listened to them and thought '80 jobs are better than none'.
As the sit-in had progressed into its later stages, divisions had appeared between the workers. Some were becoming increasingly disaffected with the struggle, and were increasingly more vulnerable to mounting external pressures. To them the sit-in was falling apart, and the workers were becoming depressed and anxious over the possible loss of redundancy payments. As one woman pointed out:
You can fight as long as you have your troops, but when people want out, irrespective of what the union thinks, or what the people who have led that fight think, they're not going to stay and fight, and the majority of people in that hall had had enough.
It is difficult to assess which view of the sit-in was more realistic. On the one hand, the offer involved only 80 jobs, which meant that only one-third of those workers who occupied would remain in employment; the offer included a management right to appoint the workers they wanted; and a wage freeze imposed for one year. Further, workers were to sign an agreement saying that they would not oppose the movement of any machinery out of the plant, in direct opposition to the aims of the sit-in. However, on the other hand, there is little concrete evidence to indicate that a more acceptable settlement could have been obtained. Moreover, there were obvious difficulties in sustaining the momentum of the industrial action over a long period, and the appearance of divisions among the occupying force augured badly for the continuance of the sit-in.
For those workers who had disagreed with the decision to accept the takeover bid and end the occupation, the general feeling at the end of the sit-in was one of bitterness and disappointment.
There was no victory feeling — just a lot of bitterness.
Much, much more could have been achieved if others had had the confidence to keep going.
However, amongst those workers interviewed, there was complete agreement that the sit-in had been a worthwhile experience, and most expressed satisfaction at having taken part:
When you consider how things were stacked against people, the occupation was remarkable, courageous and solidaristic.
The sit-in definitely brought people together. There was a great feeling of being together and of camaraderie during the fight.
The sit-in was a success as everybody pulled together — the majority took their turn at doing what needed to be done. These workers argued that they would recommend the sit-in to other workers facing closure, where they felt that there was some possibility of either reversing the closure decision or attracting new capital. The general feeling was that the sit-in was an effective tactic against redundancy: in many ways it was seen as the only action workers could take which had any hopes of success. They did point out, however, that workers who were considering occupying their factories should be fully aware of the difficulties involved in occupations, and should take into consideration the sacrifices of home life and social life which have to be made: 'Yes, I would recommend it to other workers, but everybody has to want to do it'.
Examination of the Plessey occupation enables us to take a close look at the potential significance of direct action against multinational companies — at the rationale behind such action, as well as the gains to be made by workers who choose to use it. Forms of direct action such as occupations are responses to the absolute power of capital with respect to plant closure. Multinational corporations are particularly powerful in this respect, due to their ability to relocate investment and production in various parts of the world. This has rarely been successfully challenged by the labour movement. Trade unions work from the basis of a continuing bargaining relationship with the employer. Where such a bargaining relationship ceases, as in the case of closure, conventional trade union actions such as strikes and go-slows are unlikely to have much effect on employers' policy decisions. Many workers have come to realise these limitations on trade union actions with respect to closure, and have been forced, therefore, to resort to the other methods of protest.
It would be difficult to argue that the Bathgate plant would have remained open at all (albeit with vastly reduced employment levels), without the direct intervention of the workforce. Thus, in this respect, this form of action paid off for the Plessey workers. However, it also brought other gains — as outlined earlier, the occupation stimulated high levels of solidarity, involvement and collective identification amongst the Plessey workers, as well as extensive support from the labour and trade union movement.
The involvement of a large number of women in this dispute was also a significant factor. There is no evidence to suggest that the decision to close the plant or the tactics used against the occupying workers were affected by the fact that the workforce was mainly female, and thus the importance of the workers being female was not in terms of its effect on the company's policies. Rather, in this particular dispute, there is some basis for suggesting that the importance of the workers being women was in terms of their attitudes to struggle and solidarity, and their particular experience as women workers. The questions surrounding the particular nature of women workers' involvement in, and attitudes towards, industrial action, need to be further investigated, however, before any definitive conclusions on the specific role of women in industrial action can be drawn.
1. Baldry et al., 1980, came to similar conclusions on the strategy of the Massey-Ferguson company in the run up to the closure of the company's Kilmarnock plant.
2. The workers of the Lee Jeans factory in nearby Greenock had occupied their factory in February 1981, in protest at the decision of their employers, the American VF Corporation, to close the plant.
C. Baldry, N. Haworth and H. Ramsay, 'Confronting Multinationals: The Case of Massey Ferguson, Kilmarnock', Paper to British Sociological Association Conference, Aberdeen, March 1980.
A. Elder, 'Plessey: A Multinational in the Eighties', Junior Honours Dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1982.
P. Findlay, 'Worker Reaction to Closure: A Case Study of the Occupation at Plessey, Bathgate', Honours Dissertation, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1984.
N. Haworth and H. Ramsey, 'Grasping the Nettle: Problems in the Theory of International Labour Solidarity', in P. Waterman (ed.) For a New Labour Internationalism (The Hague: International Labour Education, Research and Information Foundation, 1984).
Labour Research Bulletin, 'Leading British Multinationals', Labour Research Bulletin, October 1978.
R. MacPherson, 'Bathgate — Frontline Town' (Edinburgh: Conference of Socialist Economists, 1982).
Trade Union Research Unit, The Proposed Closure of Plessey Capacitors Ltd., Bathgate: A Trade Union Report (Glasgow College of Technology, 1982).