Britain: Occupations in the 1970s

Submitted by Newcastle on 30 July, 2009 - 5:59 Author: The following text is taken from a pamphlet produced by the North East Trade Union Studies Information Unit in June 1976.

history and background

In post-war Britain, before 1970, there were a number of short stay-in strikes, or “downers” in the car industry. One of the first occupations of any length occurred in Belfast in April 1958 when 6,000 shipyard workers staged a “24 hour stay-in strike” in protest against the sacking of over 1,000 workers.

From the mid-60s to the mid-70s the occupation tactic became a European phenomenon, spreading through Belgium, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Britain and in Portugal, where the tactic was used in a wider struggle against the fascist regime.

From around 1962 successive governments began to move towards legal constraints on wages and of legislation to curb the activities of the unions. From the beginning of a Labour government in 1964, through to its re-election in 1966, to its defeat in 1970 a number of policies on these issues were put in place that came to fruition during the 1970-74 Conservative Government.

That government’s plan to introduce stringent curbs on the unions was met with massive labour movement protest strikes — on 8 December 1970 and in the following year on 1 March when two million struck, and on 18 March when three million struck.

The Act was killed off in the following year when five dockers — acting in defence of their jobs — were arrested under the terms of the Act. One million workers throughout the country downed tools and thousands demonstrated outside Pentonville prison where the five were locked up. Within a few days the TUC had given an ultimatum of a general strike failing the men’s release.

Using the face-saving device of the intervention of the Official Solicitor, the government had the men released. It was a tremendous victory.

A similar fate was to befall the government’s pay policy less than two years later, when the National Union of Miners went on strike. The NUM refused to be bound by the Government’s wage norms.

So it was not a huge leap for workers to embark on an occupation if they had had to take on the law to defend their living standards.

From the early 1960s Britain was facing a deepening economic crisis.

The Labour government decided it had to “modernise” British industry. The policy was to place the major burden on working people while offering financial inducements to industry to improve its efficiency and profitability.

From 1966 on, mergers and productivity deals went on at a tremendous rate. Well over 8,000 companies were involved in mergers over the period 1964-72. Productivity deals, which had covered less than half a million workers prior to 1966, added another 1,145,000 workers in 1967, with a further three and a quarter million added in 1968 and three and three-quarters more in 1969.

The practical effect of mergers for workers was a threat to their jobs and working conditions.

The merger of the General Electrical Company and English Electric (to form GEC-EE) had been one of the record mergers of 1968. 12,000 of their workers were thrown out of work up to the end of 1969.

Arnold Weinstock, the company managing director, had a firm policy: “If it doesn’t pay then it doesn’t stay.”

After 1967 levels of unemployment rose sharply (half a million in that year, up from around 300,000 in previous few years). By 1969 the rate was 600,000 nationally.

The occupation tactic arose at shop floor level and only later became accepted as a normal practice at national trade union level. Those trade unions with a strong shop steward tradition the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) [later absorbed into Amicus and finally Unite], and the Transport and General Workers’ Union [also now absorbed into Unite], were instrumental in backing the tactic. Sometimes politically left activists (broadly speaking, Labour Party, Communist Party members and Trotskyists) were to the fore. A number of occupations were developed and supported by other occupations.

The AUEW had a specially long tradition of shop floor representation through its forerunners. Shop stewards from the AUEW were involved in 133 of the 200 plus occupations that occurred up to 1976, including UCS, Plessey, River Don Works and Snow Engineering.

Most the occupations occurred in the major industrial areas. Occupations such as that at Sextons [leatherworks] in Fakenham and Gainsborough Cornford in Great Yarmouth were rare. Almost three quarters of all occupations occurred in and around only five cities — Manchester, Liverpool, London, Glasgow and Sheffield in that order.

Much more than half the occupations were confined to only three major industries — Vehicles, Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering. A further quarter of all occupations occurred in Construction, Metal Manufacture, Paper with Printing and Publishing, Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering and Metal Goods.

Fewer occupations were in those industries which, although subject to high unemployment, were weakly organised. Thus less than 10 occupations occurred in the combined service and textile industries of Food with Drink and Tobacco, Textiles, Leather, Cloth, Timber and Furniture and Bricks with pottery and glass etc.

the occupations

On 13 August 1969 a mass meeting of workers from the Liverpool factories of GEC-EE voted “to take any further steps necessary, including sit-ins and other measures” to prevent threatened large scale redundancies. An occupation was planned to take place at the three factories.

The idea stimulated discussion at various levels. However it appeared that the idea never had the full backing of the shop stewards’ Action Committee, nor was more than a token work-in planned. The idea was put to a mass meeting of the workforce but only as part of a seven point list of demands and commitments to action.

A number of weaknesses combined to stop implementation of the plan.

There were different levels of organisation within the three plants combined with the way the redundancies were to be spread.

The best organised and more militant plant — Netherton — was to be closed down with the exception of the aircraft section. At the least organised — East Lancs Road — about 300 redundancies were planned out of a workforce of 8,000.

When the workforce reversed their initial decision to occupy it was those at the East Lancs Road factory who decided first and by a substantial majority.

The work necessary to win support in the company was to a large extent not done. No further mass meetings were arranged after 13 August. No regular information bulletin was produced.

Eventually, a bullying management letter was sent to each one of the workforce and the commitment to an occupation began to crack.

Two days before the planned occupation, the Action Committee called a meeting at the East Lancs Road plant, but soon found it taken over by a group of workers from a section not under threat of closure. This group gained access to the platform and successfully moved a resolution calling for the abandonment of the occupation; an end to an overtime ban which was in progress and a vote of no confidence in the Action Committee.

The damage was now done at the largest of the plants, where, ironically, only days previously the workers had staged a successful sit-in in response to a management attempt to break the overtime ban. At the other plants roughly 60% now voted to call off the occupation.

In April 1971 the first occupation of any substantial success occured — at the tiny printing works of Briants in London’s Old Kent Road. The occupation was over the sacking 60 out of a total workforce of 190. After just 24 hours the management agreed to postpone the redundancies until further discussions had taken place, and the workers had won (a temporary) victory. [A further ocupation was held later].

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. The UCS occupation when it came in July 1971 was an example and inspiration to very many other occupations. It was waged over a period of months.

The workers made redundant continued to work. Those sacked were retained in their jobs by the rest of the workforce who were now, in many ways, in effective control of the day to day running of the yards.

The UCS consortium had been established in 1968 out of five yards on the upper reaches of the Clyde. The merger was part of a government drive for the amalgamation of shipyards.

However, by late 1969, the Opposition Tory spokesman for Technology, Nicolas Ridley, was recommending that UCS be carved up with one yard, Yarrows, being hived off and the remainder sold off cheaply to private companies. A similar plan was implemented when the Tories came to power the following year. Something like 6,000 out of 8,500 jobs were to go. Some 10-20,000 workers on the upper Clyde were dependent on shipbuilding — including the families, some 50,000 were dependent.

On 13 June 1971 a meeting of stop stewards from all four yards was convened. Sam Barr [a Communist Party member] proposed a “work-in”. After initial scepticism the idea was adopted.

A traditional strike action had been proposed but this was rejected. A sit-in strike was also proposed on the basis that the struggle would probably be a long one and would be difficult to maintain, given the geographical spread of the workforce. A work-in, it was argued, would allow the workers to exercise control over the yards without the problems involved in picketing or maintaining a long sit-down strike. The work-in proposal was put to mass meetings in the yards and was voted for.

On 29 July the government declared that its decision was irreversible. The following day the take-over of the yards occurred. All those entering or leaving the yards were to be under the supervision of the shop stewards. The police had agreed in advance that they would not intervene.

A Co-ordinating Committee united the convenors from all four yards, from the boilermakers, finishing trade and the general workers along with representatives from the staff and middle management. The Committee met daily throughout the work-in and decisions were conveyed to the workforce in a series of weekly meetings through the yard convenors and departmental shop stewards. Decisions regarding the overall direction of the struggle and other major decisions were taken at the mass meetings of the workforce. [The process left a lot of decisions in the hands of a small group of people, who would meet every morning, and this reflected the strong influence of Communist Party members].

Workers who were made redundant by the liquidator were to continue working at the yards but under the responsibility of the shop stewards.

The work-in had been facilitated by the fact that there were still ships in the process of being built. As the work progressed the liquidator began to lay off workers. Wages for these workers were based on average earnings immediately prior to dismissal by the liquidator. The whole financial operation was placed in the hands of a Finance Committee.

Trade unionists from all over Britain sent in donations, and within the yards the workforce donated 50p each per week. In fact, a considerable sum was left in the fighting fund at the end of the struggle, much of which was passed on to other workers engaged in occupations.

[At the time revolutionary socialists were highly critical of the work-in tactic, and the Communist Party’s approach to seeking a broad “Popular Front” of public opinion rather than victory through class struggle. The “work-in” meant that workers were working their way out of their jobs, by completing the ships, and doing it at other workers’ expenses. Despite the CP’s claims. for much of the time a more or less normal management regime continued in the “work-in”. Nevertheless, in the conditions of 1971-2, the UCS battle won some gains and helped spark some more radical struggles.]

Plessey (Alexandria). Just over a month into the UCS work-in, a second occupation occurred, a few miles away at the marine engineering factory of Plessey’s. Here 200 engineering workers staged an occupation to prevent the removal of plant, stock and machinery and the planned closure of the factory.

River Don Steel Workers (Sheffield). In November 1971, with upwards of 4,500 jobs under threat, the workers at River Don staged a “work-in”. Redundant workers were employed on campaigning work and their wages came from a hardship fund drawn from a 50p per week levy on the still-employed workforce.

Snow Engineering. Within two days of the announcement of the River Don work-in, another Sheffield occupation took place — at a small engineering works, in defence of jobs. After only two days the workers started going home at night, just occupying the factory during the day. Inevitably after only 9 days of the occupation the workers turned up one morning to find they had been locked out.

Co-operative Insurance Society. At the end of November 1971 white collar workers at the CIS office in Manchester threatened sit-in action as part of a campaign over pay and conditions. In the event, at least a half-day sit in was staged. The occupation had now begun to be directed to other trade union ends.

On 3 January 1972 150 engineers of the Allis Chalmers engineering works in Flintshire staged the first of over 100 occupations that were to occur in 1972.

Occupations now began to mushroom, spreading from industry to industry and from town to town, and across a range of trade unions and different sections of workers.

In January alone the tactic was used by engineering workers in Liverpool (Fisher Bendix) and Manchester (Dawson-Barfos/William Crosland); by chemical industry workers in Stockport (Sim-Chem); and by textile workers in Flintshire (Courtlands).

In February, a second pay occupation occurred when 28 members of SLADE, the print union, sat-in their print firm (Leicester Photograph & Lithos Services) in pursuit of a wage claim.

By the end of 1972 more than 69,000 workers had taken part in occupations (16,000 in 1971 and 53,000 in 1972). In 1973 over 22,000 workers took part in more than 31 occupations, with roughly the same number taking part in around 24 occupations the following year. In 1975 there were at least 44 occupations, involving 21,500 workers, bringing the total for the period July 1971 to December 1975 to nearly 150,000 workers taking part in over 200 occupations.

issues and experiences

The measure of the success of any occupation to survive more than a few days was closely tied to its ability to win broad support.

In this respect the Propytex occupation in Hartlepool [although the workers in the end did not save their jobs] was remarkable. Whole sections of the community were behind the work-in and from trade union branches around the country. The occupation did things such as organise a family day. Time off from school was arranged for the children and the families were brought to an open day at the factory.

There was a wide variance in the age and experience of the shop stewards playing any major role. For instance, at the Bainbridge (clothing company) sit-in, thirty women machinists were led by two women shop stewards, new trade union members, one in her mid-20s, the other in her mid-30s. On the other hand the Coles Cranes (Sunderland) occupation was led by men with years of experience in the trade union movement.

There are 14 major examples where companies had a number of their plants occupied. In all of these cases, initial occupations in one of the plants could hope to draw on support and experience from workers at other plants. Occupations were also able to draw on support from other sections of the town, union or industry. At the height of the sit-ins in Manchester, the AEUW’s own head office was occupied by their clerical workers who were angry over a procedural agreement issue!

Within the construction industry there were a number of occupations both before and after the successful building workers’ strike of July 1972.

In May 1972 women engineers at Plessey’s Gerrard plan in Swindon sat-in, demanding that they be allowed to take their holiday week at the same time as their husbands, many of whom worked for British Rail. This was conceded. A few weeks later, encouraged by the success of this sit-in, British Rail Workshop engineers sat-in to prevent work from being diverted.

There were of course many threats to the general picture of unity. At Imperial Typewriters, workers at the Hull factory occupied to stop job losses. Earlier, Asian workers at the Leicester plant had faced racist abuse from their fellow workers when they struck. The same reactionary elements denounced the Hull workers when they occupied.

Apart from the Manchester pay sit-ins involving a number of women, women were reported to have been involved in at least 33 other occupations, playing substantial or leading roles in two-thirds of them. Six of these involved women alone.

Christine Brazil was a steward at Briants. She said, “Most people are under the impression that women are conservative in their attitudes and are not interested in unions and militant struggle. There has never been any problem here. All the women are active union members. They are not the sort to grouse when others go on strike.”

All the pay disputes were sit-ins. Among the perceived benefits of this kind of action were that it was warmer being inside the workplace, than picketing outside. It was a more effective method of involving large number of the workforce and a way of preventing scab labour. In many cases the choice was forced on the workers as a way of preventing a threatened lock-out.

At Warmsley, Wigan (September 1972) the police took a hand. They were demanding a reduction in the numbers on the picket line, so the workers decided a sit-in would avoid any confrontation.

In a few cases pay sit-ins lasted a matter of hours. The majority of pay sit-ins lasted at least 24 hours.

There were a number of sit-ins in response to management disciplinary action. At Cubitt’s building site, Chelsea (February 1973) shop stewards were victimised and the workforce locked out. A UCATT member occupied a crane in response.

Briants and the Sextons leatherworks in Fakenham were probably the only two fully fledged work-ins as they took on a substantial amount of new work. Work-ins were not possible unless essential supplies were available.

Workers’ Cooperatives were the end result of about six sit-ins.

All the occupations were supported by the union involved to one degree or another, apart from Sextons. At Briant’s, the print union NATSOPA did not recognise the dispute for the first three months, and then paid out £20 a week dispute benefit to its members for the next three months. Then it stopped, in order to put the members under pressure.

The print unions involved then found a buyer for Briants. Although the workers did not trust the buyer, they felt obliged to their union to accept the deal. Within six months the works was closed again, and the workers locked out.

[Under pressure even very right wing union leaders backed the occupations]. Clive Jeninks of ASTMS gave his full support to the NVT occupation in Wolverhampton, riding around on one of the new bikes produced during the occupation, to publicise the potential of the factory!

In 1975 [rather late] the TUC voted for legal immunity for occupations.

Legal action was taken by employers in only a few cases. This reflected widespread sympathy with the actions of occupiers.

On the other hand the eviction of large groups of workers would have sparked off large confrontations with the police.

With the defeat of the Conservatives in 1974, the new Labour Government took a different approach — up to a point. This took the form of fianancing workers’ co-operatives, but not all.

Occupations then occurred at plants where the government held partial or majority ownership — at British Leyland and Cammell Laird shipyard. At Cammell Laird the government did not intervene when in August 1975 a mass picket of the yard was forcibly broken up by 80 police.

Apart from the more obvious material gains obtained in occupations there were a number of other gains for workers, in their confidence, in their ability and willingness to tackle various organisational tasks and changes in political thinking.

In the words of one woman carton worker at Tillotsons, “In the old days, before the union, you were afraid to open your mouth because you were afraid of losing your job. But now we are much more confident. We’ve got the union.”

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