Twenty years ago today, on Hogmanay 1996, the Glasgow Glacier Metal engineering workers were ringing the bells in elation at their victory, whilst Glacier bosses were wringing their hands in despair.
The ‘Polmadie 103’ had scored a landmark victory for class struggle trade unionism, defeating the factory’s multinational owners, Turner & Newall, after a seven week factory sit-in.
It was the first workplace occupation in ten years, and was provoked by dictatorial bosses trying to impose a 15-point change of contract, which aimed to double company profits; cut wages by £123 a week; and slash sick pay, the canteen subsidy and other benefits won over 25 years by these members of the AEEU, now part of UNITE the union.
The boss’s method of imposing this was designed to undermine the union. He picked on the youngest tradesman in the workforce, and ordered him to risk health and safety by doing two jobs at once. The lad went to his union stewards, who had prepared for this confrontation and - advising the entire workforce to ‘down tools’- went upstairs to negotiate.
As they waited outside his office, the manager sneaked down to the factory floor to declare: “Gentlemen, you are all sacked!"
Four of those sacked were on holiday, while another was convalescing after operations for brain tumours.
Advantages of Factory Occupation
Critically, instead of walking out the door on strike - which years before had landed them in a prolonged lockout - the workers stayed in the factory, declaring themselves available for work.
This totally wrong-footed management, and gave the highly-skilled workers several strategic advantages.
They seized control of a factory with £1million-worth of undelivered precision engineering products, paralysing £200,000-a-day production and thereby putting pressure on the owners from customer companies. I'll never forget the irate phone call to the factory during the sit-in, when a company boss bellowed: "What's going on with my orders? I've got a f***ing nuclear power station to run!"
They psychologically brought the battle into the bosses’ domain, preventing them bussing in scabs past legally-hamstrung pickets with police assistance, as Timex had done in Dundee 1993.
And above all, they were fighting for their jobs, justice and full trade union rights inside a well-heated factory, with snow-storms outside, making it one huge campaigning nerve centre.
Building Workers' Solidarity
If the factory occupation had remained a ‘folded arms’ affair, waiting for concessions from the employers, it would have collapsed, or at best allowed some dirty deal to be hatched above their heads between the management and top AEEU officials, who had secret contact with the company as early as five days into the occupation.
But this inspiring workers’ struggle was a model of strategy and tactics. Firm discipline was established by the union stewards and Occupation Committee, with a booze ban and daily mass meetings. Meals were cooked and the factory kept clean.
LFC hero Robbie Fowler showing solidarity with
the dockers' fight against cheap casual labour
Role of Socialists in the Sit-in
Some of us who later founded the SSP played a major role in this historic event.
I first called to offer practical solidarity the morning after they started the occupation. We had been in the thick of building support for the 500 locked-out Liverpool dockers for the previous 15 months, and used our vast array of workplace contacts to arrange solidarity visits with Glacier workers all over Scotland – and parts of the UK, particularly those with big engineering industries.
This served several purposes, including financial survival for the workers’ families and a breach in the media shroud of silence.
On the issue of whether management could evict them, we explained the law, with the help of a couple of friendly lawyers, but emphasised that the ultimate means of defence of the sit-in from potential moves - involving police, or cowboy security firms - was to build mass support in the workplaces and surrounding community, creating a potential army of defence.
Solidarity Mass Pickets
The employers hoped to isolate the sit-in with the help of media silence, aiming to starve the workers’ families into submission as Christmas loomed large. Workplace solidarity tours helped scupper that. It also countered the danger of boredom and demoralisation setting in amongst a workforce not previously known for involvement in the wider trade union movement.
When management told the arbitration service ACAS that they had no workforce, we smelt a rat, suspecting imminent eviction, and in discussions with the Occupation Committee suggested an early morning solidarity mass picket, built through a leaflet around workplaces and the mailing list of the Clydeside Dockers' Support Group (which I was the organiser of). That vastly boosted morale, became a weekly feature, and peaked at a turnout of 400.
Taking to the Streets
We then suggested a pre-Xmas demo, which attracted well over 1,000 on Sunday 15 December. One report claimed 3,000.
The build-up was as important as this stirring event itself. The Occupation Committee had co-opted me as an adviser, and put me in charge of a small Demo Committee. We involved the absolute majority of the men, and a few of their partners, in street meetings, issuing hard-hitting leaflets that won support, by-passed the media blackout, and swamped workplaces and shopping centres across the west of Scotland.
An ACAS boss complained after a leaflet was left unwittingly on his windscreen, because it described Turner & Newall as ‘notorious merchants of death’, citing their appalling record on asbestosis. AEEU officials went ape-shit down the phone to the union convener, who firmly rejected their instructions and printed 29,000 of the ‘offending’ leaflet. This propaganda offensive helped bring T&N bosses to heel, as they already faced dire problems with £billions of outstanding asbestosis claims and feared their notoriety being broadcast.
Mass meeting of the locked-out Liverpool dockers
Supporting Locked-out Liverpool Dockers
The workers were literally dancing with elation after the success of the demo. They then turned their attention to daily street collections in the run up to Xmas – for financial survival, but also to keep the campaign alive and in people’s minds.
The first big collection, on 18 December, raised £488… for the Liverpool dockers! The Occupation Committee rounded it up to £600, in an act of selfless solidarity born of their own experiences in battle. On Xmas Eve, a team hit Glasgow’s Argyle Street from 10am to 5pm and collected £2,800.
Negotiations began that day, involving both full-time union officials and the factory union convener and deputy convener. T&N’s Head of Employee Relations grizzled with rage that as they negotiated, Glacier workers were on the streets with megaphones and leaflets attacking T&N. That was precisely part of the point – to pile pressure on the company, and remind right-wing AEEU officials what was at stake.
A Christmas day breakfast was laid on in the occupied factory for families and supporters – another ingenious act of defiance and comradeship by people whose talents erupted in the heat of battle.
By Hogmanay, the 103 workers were celebrating a landmark victory. All were reinstated, with full union recognition, and very little conceded to the bosses on their conditions of work.
In a final fling at undermining union rights, the company tried to get a staggered return to work – which the AEEU full-time officials agreed to. The workers’ direct union representatives went ballistic, refused, said it was a ploy to potentially victimise leaders of the occupation, and won a proud, united return to work.
A multinational giant was brought to its knees by the tactics, skills, and impact on production by this factory occupation. Socialists played an important, constructive part, applying collective experience to living struggles, laying foundations for a united, working class socialist party - in the form of the SSP, established two years after the Polmadie 103's victory.
Such was the impact of this victorious struggle in the Southside of Glasgow, that a dissident voice in the hierarchy of Turner & Newall management reproduced the article I wrote on its tenth anniversary, with a covering note bemoaning their losses.
"Even if they worked only 5 days per week, at “£200,000-a-day” this 7-week strike cost them £7 million, plus legal and administrative costs of fighting the strike. And they lost not only the strike but their former stronger position against the union.
Here’s an exquisite example of why [former Glacier Metal Company CEO] Wilfred Brown’s ideas about Works Councils make management stronger, not weaker. Had Turner & Newall had the guts to restore this strong institution — instead of the cowardice of underhanded union-busting — they would have been in a stronger position overall in their discussion with the union."
Interestingly, he advocated a return to earlier methods of Works Councils - the much-vaunted concept of 'social partnership' - rather than full-frontal union-busting methods... to achieve precisely the same cost-cutting, profit-boosting attacks on workers' terms and conditions!
As workplace closures and massive redundancies erupt 20 years on, workers and their union leaderships should study, adapt and apply the lessons from this outstanding model of how to defy the dictatorship of capital.