When workers fought the bosses to a standstill
29 January 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the historic 1993 struggle of Timex workers in Dundee. The almost 8 month-long dispute was the most significant industrial struggle in the history of the city, involving mass picketing and demonstrations, solidarity walkouts and strike action as well as clashes with the police who acted as a private security force for the Timex corporation. The struggle of these courageous workers has important lessons for today at a time of savage attacks on workers’ rights and living standards. And at a time when mass trade union struggle is back on the agenda.
Already, some of the local and national media have made comment on the significance of this struggle 20 years on. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, their narrow focus has been on the supposed picket line violence and from their capitalist point of view, the futility of struggle when people are faced with losing their jobs. The conclusion that workers and trade unionists today will draw is entirely different.
The Timex Corporation had been in Dundee since 1946 and generations of Dundee families had worked there over the years, including my own. At its height, 5,000 workers were employed at three different sites across the city. Over the years, the workers had produced cameras, watches, computers, cathode ray tubes etc making huge profits for the multinational. In December 1992 the company, had proposed to lay off up to 150 workers, nearly half the workforce, for a period of 6 months. Management had hand-picked union activists to be amongst those laid off in a clear attempt at breaking the union. A ballot for strike action resulted in a 92% vote in favour. Requests by the AEEU union for negotiations were ignored by the company and on 29 January, the workers began all-out strike action.
Despite an offer to return to work to negotiate, the management response any return to work was dependent on the workers taking a pay cut and massive cuts to their pension provision. When this was refused the entire workforce was locked-out and sacked. Timex Corporation had seriously underestimated the determination of this predominantly female workforce. Working class Dundee women have had a well earned reputation of being militant fighters, going right back to the times of the struggle for improved working conditions in the city’s jute mills in the 19th and early 20th century. In 1983, the workers had carried out an occupation of the Timex Milton factory in the east of the city. The issue of the occupation of the factory in 1993 was discussed. As a tactic it would have made the bosses lock-out and the bringing in of scab labour impossible, as well as helping to prevent any attempts to remove machinery from the plant.
Anti-union laws defeated
Timex attempted to use the courts to enforce the Tory anti trade union laws to ensure the strikers were restricted to having only 6 people on their picket line. This was defied and defeated by the strikers arguing that their picket lines were in fact mass meetings and demonstrations. In March 1993, a demonstration of 10,000 marched through city centre streets. Trade unionists had come from across Britain to show solidarity.
At the mass picket on the following Monday, the open collaboration between Timex and Tayside Police was exposed for all to see. As the replacement scab workforce buses were forced through an angry and determined picket line, the police were indiscriminately arresting noisy but peaceful pickets. All those arrested, despite not being found guilty of any crime, were handed exclusion orders and banned from going anywhere near the factory.
There was a conscious attempt in the media at portraying the strikers and their supporters as mindless troublemakers. This ignored the fact that the Timex strikers had overwhelming support from the working class of Dundee and right across the country. This was clearly expressed through the donations of money, food and clothing that flooded into the local AEEU offices from all over. Despite opposition and obstruction from the national AEEU leadership the local leaders continued to play a positive role. As well as continuing to picket the factory the strike committee and wider sacked workforce developed a mass boycott campaign of Timex products and those shops that sold them as well as any local business that supplied goods to the scab factory. A local taxi firm was eventually forced out of business after it was used by Timex to deliver the sacking notices to workers’ homes in the dead of night. Once the word got out, local people refused to use them. The strike committee sent delegations to speak to meetings of workers across Britain and all over the world. Strikers got a great response wherever they went. Speakers went to Ireland, Norway, France and to the headquarters of the corporation in the United States among others. They came back with messages of support and much needed financial aid.
In April, another mass picket was turned into a partial local one-day strike as workers from other Dundee workplaces such as NCR, Levis, Ninewells Hospital, council workers as well as a number of smaller workplaces marched to the factory gates then took part in a demonstration to a nearby park in a crowd of over 6,000. On Monday 17 May, the statutory 90-day sacking notice was due to expire and Timex would be free to rehire some of its sacked workers. This was an attempt at breaking the unity of the strikers by offering some their jobs back (on reduced terms) while permanently excluding others. At a mass meeting running up to that date, the strikers made it clear that no one was going back unless they all were on the same terms and conditions they were on when the dispute began.
On 17 May, one of the largest pickets Scotland had ever seen took place. 5,000 people assembled in solidarity. Production in the scab factory ground to a halt. Timex and the police had secretly arranged for the scab buses to arrive 90 minutes earlier than normal start time. The police were stopping buses of trade unionists, including miners who had travelled from all over the country on the main roads leading to Dundee.
Despite the police tactics, the road leading to the gate of the factory was blocked by pickets and it took the police over 20 minutes to force it 50 yards into the factory. All the while more and more pickets were arriving and the police were forced to concede that they were unable to get scabs in cars as well as delivery vans through and they were turned away.
Two demonstrators who allegedly blocked a side gate of the factory with a mini-bus were originally charged with attempted murder for driving past police officers. This information was then released to the media who went into overdrive about claims of attempted murder on the picket line splashed all over the news programmes and newspapers. When the ridiculous charges were dropped there was obviously not the same fanfare. Through their own experience and through discussion with socialists such as Scottish Militant Labour (the forerunner of the Socialist Party Scotland – CWI) the strikers wanted to transform the overwhelming support they had from other trade unionists into concrete action in form of a one day general strike. Leaders of SML like Tommy Sheridan, who was targeted for arrest by the police, reguarly spoke at Timex workers’ mass meetings early on in the dispute.
Shop stewards’ conference
Through pressure from below, the STUC were pushed into calling an all-Scotland Shop Stewards’ conference in a bingo hall in the city to discuss what support could be given to the Timex strikers. This was bureaucratically cut short when discussion turned to the calling of a one-day general strike as the leadership feared the Tory anti union laws could be used against them. Speaking at a Militant Labour Rally at Wembley Conference Centre in London held in June 1993 Sandra Walker a striker said in her speech “Women are at the forefront of this struggle and have changed from lambs to lions. We need national trade union support. If our forefathers had listened to talk about legality we’d have no trade unions”.
John Kydd Jnr, local AEEU Convenor was asked for an honest assessment of the role of SML (CWI) in the dispute. He commented "The role of SML in the Timex dispute enhanced the class emphasis of the dispute. Their solidarity, support and encouragement helped to bolster the morale of the pickets at every stage of the dispute. Their direct action approach made sure of national recognition and raised the dispute to greater heights. Those who condemned the support of SML failed to recognize the class nature of the dispute and by their actions aided and abetted the Engineering Employers Federation and the company”.
The national leaders of the AEEU and STUC did little to build wider strike action and in some circumstances consciously sabotaged attempts to build for that. The strikers had fought this multinational to a standstill. As John Kydd Jnr had said early on the dispute, there could only be 2 possible outcomes. The full reinstatement of all workers or the factory would have to be closed as a non union scab factory would not be tolerated. By this stage, the factory manager, a classic Tory macho manager, Peter Hall, had been forced to resign as he had been unable to deliver a pliable non-union factory to his bosses in the United States. When another mass picket on 19 June closed the Timex factory, even the security guards on the site had to find another way to get in.
At a well attended Scottish Militant Labour meeting after the rally, SML was thanked by a member of the strike committee for the provision of stewards and for the picket line coverage during the long dispute. The boycott campaign was having a big effect on Timex internationally but the failure of national trade union leaders to organise much-needed solidarity strike action meant the dispute was at stalemate. The willingness to continue fighting amongst the strikers was still strong. The company were forced to concede they could not win and the factory closed in August 1993. The strikers and local union leaders had given their all for 8 months but had to accept redundancy terms. 20 years later workers are again being told to accept pay cuts, job losses, job insecurity.
A key lesson is that if 340 workers in Dundee could take on and fight to a standstill a huge corporation like Timex along with their allies in the police and the media, just think what a 24-hour general strike involving all workers in the private and public sectors could achieve. Their example of struggle and the widespread public support they attracted was a clear indicator that the days of working class solidarity and struggle have not been forgotten.
A key task is to build fighting democratic trade unions at local and national levels alongside the building of a new mass workers party that can represent the interests of working class people. Working people will have no choice but to take to the methods of mass struggle to defend jobs, services and communities. The current capitalist economic crisis exposes the naked reality of on the one hand unimaginable wealth for a tiny minority and on the other hand millions of people across Scotland and across the world struggling to exist. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow.
Women were the backbone of the Timex struggle and are today those who suffer most during this economic crisis. The Timex women were transformed in a very short space of time. My mum, Laura, was on the strike committee after working in the factory for 20 years, before those events she would never have seen herself travelling the country speaking to audiences of hundreds about their battle and calling for solidarity action, many others would say the same. It is our duty to commemorate their struggle while looking to build a genuine socialist alternative for the future.