Timex dispute a test case for British unions


On May 15, some 5000 people marched through the Scottish city of Dundee in solidarity with sacked Timex workers. Two days later 3000 people bused from around Britain to stand on the Timex picket line; several hundred police were there to shepherd in at most 150 scabs. Dozens of protesters were arrested, many injured, and thousands of taxpayer pounds wasted in this long-running dispute upon which so much hangs. WILLIE LESSLIE, Timex union deputy convener, explained why to Green Left Weekly's FRANK NOAKES.

It's a cold morning in Dundee, although it has been a lot worse. The thousands of demonstrators of yesterday have gone, leaving behind a bog that was once grass. The campfire is burning; women and men drink tea around the caravans — face to face with a now thin blue line of police.

Suddenly a cry goes up, gates swing open, workers press up against cops as two buses lumber up the hill. Fingers point accusingly as a chorus of "Scab!" fills the air. The grey faces in the grey buses hide, some behind bags, others under ski masks. At least most of them are ashamed. It's Tuesday, May 18, and so begins day 91 on the Timex picket line.

The spectacle is as emotionally charged as it is dramatic. There can be few sights to fill one with such revulsion as scabs, under police protection, arriving to steal somebody else's job. And just feet away picketers, indomitable, proud, who open your eyes to that which is truly worthy of the human spirit.

"The background to the dispute goes back to when Peter Hall was appointed as the managing director of the company almost two years ago now", says Willie Lesslie. "He brought with him a completely different management style.

"He's someone who didn't have any background of dealing with organised labour. He had a very aggressive style when he dealt with the trade union; he wasn't keen to develop a consensual style at all."

Hall told the unions that orders would be low for the first six months of 1993, but that the company would become very busy in the second half of the year.

"His proposal was that the company would conduct an assessment of all the hourly paid employees, and they would select those who would be laid off for periods of up to six months; which could amount to half the work force. Our approach was that we'd encountered these business problems before, and the way in which we'd always dealt with it was, as far as possible, to share the work that was available", says Lesslie. "I mean, we weren't asking to be paid for sitting around in the factory."

In the past they had worked week on, week off, and were prepared to be flexible, helping to address any technical problems the company might have. "But Mr Hall flatly rejected that."

The whole of January was spent attempting to come to an agreement that would include rotation of work. "We were not prepared to accept the criteria for assessment to be determined by the company with no union input, but he was not for having any of that."

After balloting the work force, in line with Tory legislation, and winning a 92% majority, the Timex workers walked out on January 29. The company spent the next two weeks trying to intimidate workers into returning; taxis were sent to people's homes in the dead of night with letters threatening dismissal. Negotiations between management and full-time union officials continued. Eventually Timex agreed to discuss rotation with workers and, if there was no resolution within a week, the dispute would go to arbitration.

But now the company demanded a cut in fringe benefits that amounted to 10% of total income and a one-year pay freeze. Not only that, management insisted that if those measures didn't sufficiently improve profits, then there would have to be a further pay cut, in the form of extending the working week from 37 to 40 hours with no extra pay. To top it off, there would be a loss of one week's annual leave and a reduction in overtime and shift allowance.

Not surprisingly, the workers refused. However, they were prepared to return to work under a legal formulation of "accepting under protest": "That protected our legal right to sue the company for damages and breach of contract."

Timex refused this. Workers turned up on February 15 to find the gates locked and guarded by police. "The company took industrial action against the workers", Lesslie said. Two days later the company sacked all 343 workers, including those on maternity and sick leave. Next came the scabs.

"But that only served to harden the resolve of the work force", according to Lesslie. "People now understand that the Engineering Employers Federation, the bosses' collective organisation, has been working very hard to support Timex. They've assisted them through all the negotiations. They're up to their necks in this because they're keen to claw back some of the benefits that were gained by workers in the shorter working week campaign of three or four years ago.

"It's a test case; employers everywhere are waiting to see what the outcome is. Timex has a long history of militant labour organisation", stresses Lesslie, "always prepared to stand up for themselves. Employers know if the union at Timex can be broken, it might be easier for them to break their own work force. But other workers themselves recognise the significance of that; so it's in their own self-interest to give solidarity to Timex workers. The response we've had has been phenomenal."

A further indication of the widespread support the sacked workers enjoy came in the shape of pies, hundreds of them, donated by the local bakery for the May 17 demonstration.

From the very beginning the workers have respected all anti-union laws; it is the company that tore up the agreements. Lesslie points out that Britain is the only European Community country that would tolerate Timex's actions. In Spain, it would have been Peter Hall in the dock, not workers, when Timex took them to court in a vain attempt to prevent them from picketing.

Hall has since complained to a parliamentary select committee that mass picketing should be a criminal offence. Tory legislation does not go far enough, he complained.

The workers have had to face other threats — from their union. The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union general secretary Gavin Laird wrote in a letter to the workers: "Failure to obey the instructions of the union's executive council will render you liable to expulsion from the union". Laird, who has the appeal and demeanour of a second-hand car salesperson, said in March, "Our message to outsiders [read other unionists] is keep out and mind your own business". No senior AEEU officials attended the May 17 picket.

Under Tory anti-union law, a 90-day rule allows employers to provoke a strike, sack their workers without any compensation and, at the end of 90 days, selectively rehire the workers without any penalty for breach of contract. The 90 days elapsed on May 17. Lesslie is confident that all the sacked workers, who receive about $110 a week from strike funds, will stand united.

Timex, a US-registered multinational now owned by Norwegian Fred Olsen, has been in Dundee 47 years. Seventy-five per cent of the work force were women prior to the sackings, many of whom had worked for Timex for over 20 years. This is reflected on the picket line. Most of those scabbing are men.

The company, despite denials, is shorthanded at the plant. Lesslie proudly points out: "In this city there are over 15,000 unemployed, there are 30 unemployed people for every job vacancy. It is a great encouragement that the vast majority of unemployed people have refused to break this picket line."

A campaign to boycott Timex watches has been initiated, for which the workers are seeking international support. Recently a team of unionists visited Norway, successfully seeking support. The successful outcome of this dispute will be an important victory, not only for the workers involved, but also for a beleaguered British trade union movement.

"Because of the lack of a fight in this country since the miners' dispute [1984/85] and Wapping [print workers 1986], people are being inspired by workers who are prepared to stand up for themselves, to stand up and be counted, prepared to get off their knees."

Willie Lesslie, on behalf of the sacked Timex workers, appeals to Australian workers to send messages of solidarity. Any financial support and backing for the boycott campaign would be welcomed. Messages/donations can be sent C/- Scottish Trade Union Congress. Fax 44 41 332 4649.

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