Meccano factory occupation timeline

A timeline of the 1979 occupation of the Wavertree Meccano factory by mostly women workers, written by Dr Greig Campbell.

Submitted by Working Class … on May 14, 2021

30th November 1979:

Local management, having spoken to Airfix bosses in London, announced that Liverpool’s Meccano factory was to close immediately and the approximately 950 workers were to lose their jobs. They were given approximately 15 mins notice of redundancy.

Ray McNeice, managing director, said: “We have run out of money. It’s as simple as that. We had hoped for more money from Airfix but we knew at about 3pm yesterday that we weren’t going to get it. We knew it was highly unlikely we would get it a few weeks ago when there was a main board meeting. The senior stewards were invited in and told that within three weeks their future would be decided”.

Company bemoaned the financial performance of the firm, identifying £5m losses over the past 3 ½ years; and £1m in the current financial year alone.

Workers immediately responded by occupying the plant, with one GMWU convenor telling the press: “We’ll fight this to the bitter end”.

31st November 1979:

Political response led by local MP David Alton, who sought high level talks with Airfix bosses in London.

Shocked City Council leaders, meanwhile, described the news as a “tragic blow for Merseyside”.

3rd December 1980:

MPs Eric Ogden and David Alton tabled questions in the Commons, demanding to know how much in state subsidies had been paid to Airfix bosses over the past three years, before drawing attention to management’s failure to provide workers with the statutory 90 days’ notice of redundancy.

Trades Council leaders and workers discussed a complete ban on the handling of all Airfix products by local Dockers.

5th December 1980:

News emerges that company bosses had been withholding wages for the final week of normal working.

Despite eventually releasing pay cheques, they published an advertisement in the local press blaming workers for the delay.

Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, warned that Airfix could be prosecuted for failing to provide the statutory 90-day notice of redundancy. The company responded by claiming there were “special circumstances” which meant they would avoid legal action, reaffirming that there was “no hope” of saving the Binns Rd. facility.

6th December 1980:

Government pressure prompted company officials to sit down with workers and their union officials; with the latter asking Airfix to reinstate sacked workers, and for “breathing space” whilst a buyer for the plant was found.

However, after the London talks broke down, the occupation was transformed into a work-in.
Jack Spriggs, worker-director at KME, addressed a mass meeting of workers to discuss the possibility of establishing a workers’ co-operative.

Local action committee elected, with leaders suggesting the work-in could be maintained for at least 3 months.

8th December 1979:

Action committee, spearheaded by senior shop stewards, discussed three potential options:
find a potential buyer;
establish a workers’ co-operative;
or ask the council to take over the site and run it as a municipal enterprise.

Workers, meanwhile, picket Liverpool’s Holiday Inn, where management have holed up since being escorted from the premises a week earlier.

10th December 1979:

Another round of high-level talks broke down, with workers rejecting an apparent ‘peace deal’ from company officials. Offer included 90-days pay in return for an end to the occupation, access to stock and guarantees from union officials that their members wouldn’t seek a financial award under the Protection of Employment Act. All but one employee rejected the package, with local leaders calling for a public enquiry into the affairs of Airfix.

Union officials announced British taxpayers had the right to know what happened to the £2m worth of state funds pumped into the Meccano plant.

12th December 1979:

Unionists and workers meet with DTI officials in Whitehall. Under-secretary, David Mitchell, was clearly angered by the manner in which Airfix bosses announced the closure.

Back in Liverpool, 100 workers staged a demo at the Town Hall, lobbying Councillors on arrival. Inside, they backed a call from Derek Hatton for the City to take over the factory. Rival political parties agreed to ask the NEB to undertake a feasibility study into retaining the facility.
Further discussions over the possibility of a workers’ buyout and co-operative.

13th December 1979:

It is revealed that Meccano employees are being blocked from accessing state benefits as they aren’t yet recognised as being either unemployed or actively seeking for alternative work.

Workers asked shoppers in the City centre for their support and a ‘hardship’ fund is set up at the Trades Council offices in Victoria Street.

Shop stewards and union officials urged increasingly vulnerable workers to ignore press talk of a golden handshake worth an estimated £3,000.

Council rejects local Labour Party resolution to take control of the facility.

14th December 1979:

The Commons debated the possible closure, with Eric Ogden accusing management of displaying “almost incredible ineptitude and bad judgement” when giving less than one hour’s notice of its closure plan.

The MP also revealed that letters mailed to his constituent workers had been secretly intercepted by management.

17th December 1979:

At another meeting between Airfix and union officials in London, the former caused uproar by describing their workforce as “almost unmanageable, with extensive pilfering, high absenteeism and restrictive practices”.

Company then hire an independent personnel management consultant to oversee a PR campaign placing Meccano’s woes squarely at the door of the workforce. Nick Cowans subsequently angered Liverpudlians by informing The Guardian that the factory was a good example of why Merseyside was being de-industrialised.

Local union officials would respond by describing him as a “paid assassin”.

18th December 1979:

Widespread press rumours that the Meccano and Dinky line was set to continue to be produced abroad after fate of the Binns Road facility was finally sealed.

Upon hearing the news, a mass meeting rejected management’s latest redundancy proposal by a 2 to 1 margin; voting to continue the protest in the process.

19th December 1979:

Another company advert in the local press, outlining the “generosity” of management’s earlier offer to pay all holiday pay before Xmas in exchange for “permanent repossession” of Meccano’s office block.

24th December 1979:

Management cut lights, heating and telephone lines at the factory in an attempt to force the cessation of the sit-in. Further threat to switch off water supplies.

Workers responded by bringing their own torches, heaters and, eventually, a back up generator. John Lynch told the Liverpool Echo: “The news came as a bit of a kick in the pants but, to be honest we would have been living in cuckoo land not to have expected something like this. My major concern, though, is for the safety of the building. If the power goes off the sprinkler system will be affected. Also, there are security men on the premises, and they are going to have to work without lights and heating, and they aren’t going to be pleased. The workers have taken the blow quite well and are now even more determined to fight for their jobs. It’s going to be a cold and dark Christmas, but with our own heaters, and determination, we will stick it out”.

In an effort to gain further support from the local community, workers distributed leaflets in Liverpool City centre.

7th January 1980:

Workers adopted new tactics, travelling to Airfix offices in London, organising a six-hour vigil.
Another flying picket, meanwhile, protested at the gates of another company-owned facility in Doncaster.

18th January 1980:

Despite further talks with management breaking down, sit-in organisers remained hopeful, with news of several prospective buyers registering interest in buying the facility.

GMWU shop steward Eric Titterington told the press: “We are hopeful. I honestly think it will re-open. I don’t think it is lost. Everyone at the factory seems to have more heart for doing the jobs of sitting-in. We have all got over the hump of Christmas. Spirits are tremendous now”.

26th January 1979:

After a temporary thawing of relations, workers, union and company officials agreed to form a Joint Working Party (JWP) in order to explore a possible sale of Meccano to a third party.
Yet only days later, an Airfix spokesperson announced there was no chance of re-opening the factory, confirming production would be exported to Europe.

28th January 1980:

A mass meeting voted to allow management to enter offices in order to access records and company files.

Workers also agreed that if the JWP failed to buy a buyer by 28th February 1980 – the end of the 90-day notice period – then they would begin handing the site back to management in a peaceful manner.

31st January 1980:

JWP in disarray, with management refusing to address 10 questions the union side put on the table. One regional GMWU official told The Guardian: “There seems to be some reluctance to get down to business, so we have asked for a reply to our questions in writing. We want to know what plans there are for moving Meccano and Dinky production elsewhere, and why. If we have made no progress by Monday, there may have to be a change of mind in the workforce about handing back the factory”.

1st February 1980:

At a meeting with union officials in London, Airfix bosses raised the prospect of improved redundancy payments of up to £5,000 for long-time workers.

Union officials, on the other hand, warned a cap of £400 was being prepared by an untrustworthy management.

Although approximately 200 employees were looking to settle, a mass meeting unanimously rejected the offer.

12th February 1980:

Another mass meeting agreed to continue the occupation, rejecting another redundancy offer from company officials.

Frustrated by the management side of the JWP, action committee leaders launches a “super sell” campaign in a final effort to save their livelihoods.

19th February 1980:

Meccano workers took to the streets of Liverpool, organising a demo that snaked from their place of work on the city’s outskirts towards the Pier Head. The 1,000-strong protest was bolstered by workers at Shotton steel plant and the nearby Massey Ferguson tractor factory – two facilities that were also under the threat of closure.

28th February 1980:

Occupation reaches 90-day deadline agreed by JWP and still no buyer had been found, despite significant interest and several reported bids having been rejected by management.

At a mass meeting, approximately 250 of the 950 workers voted to continue with their sit-in, but hundreds more, including several shop stewards, accepted a £1m redundancy package and ended their protest.

1st March 1980:

Occupation of the plant continues after the 28th February 1980 deadline had passed and the threat of legal actions from company bosses.

A company spokesperson told The Guardian: “Now two of those [union] officials, Mike Egan and John Lynch, are leading the occupation of the plant. They are clearly breaking that [31st January] agreement”.

3rd March 1980:

Airfix seek a possession order from the High Court to enter their premises. Only 100 workers remain inside the plant.

700 workers had by now accepted redundancy terms.

11th March 1980:

After a high court order was granted, bailiffs and 30 policemen forcibly entered the Binns Road site, thus ending the 14-week protest.