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Turning back the clock?

The Timex dispute in Dundee is a sign of changed times, not a return to the seventies, says Angus Kane

When management at the American-owned Timex factory in Dundee locked out 343 workers and bussed in scabs, the left glimpsed a return to its golden age of the mass picket line confrontations of the 1970s. But Timex workers face a modern multinational employer pursuing the methods of the 1990s - they need a response to match.

On 3 June Jimmy Airlie, senior Scottish official of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, explained the latest management offer to a mass meeting of Timex strikers. The deal included a 27 per cent cut in pay, atwo-year wage freeze, cuts in bonuses and company pension contributions, lower sick pay, the scrapping of canteen subsidies and a chance to return to work subject to a skill assessment - or a redundancy payment of £500. The meeting lasted little over half an hour as the package was unanimously and derisively rejected.

Bitter exchanges

The workers, some of whom have worked at the factory for 20 or 30 years, returned to the picket line which they have maintained with spirit and determination since they were locked out on 15 February. Under the influence of trade union officials and the left, the dispute has adopted the time-honoured pattern of bitter exchanges across the picket line, periodic mass pickets, demonstrations and rallies.

On 17 May Arthur Scargill addressed a rally outside the plant and 38 protestors were arrested in scuffles with the police. Scargill's presence revived images of the 1972 miners' strike when he led the Yorkshire miners to a mass picket that closed the Saltley coke depot in the Midlands. It also recalled the mass pickets outside the Grunwick film processing laboratory in north London in 1977, when Yorkshire miners demonstrated in solidarity with a workforce made up predominantly of Asian women.

Parallels with the 1970s however tend to obscure two distinctive features of the Timex dispute - the combativeness of the employers and the spineless collaboration of the union officials. At each stage of the dispute, Timex management have raised the stakes and gone for victory. By contrast, senior union officials have behaved as a sort of cross between redundancy consultants and police informers.

At the outset of the dispute management proposed laying off half the workforce, claiming a fall in demand. The union's response was to suggest rotating the lay-offs among the workers. Encouraged by this conciliatory response, Timex insisted that they should choose who to lay off. When workers voted to strike, management broadened the redundancy package to include a wage freeze and cuts in benefits. When workers agreed to accept the lay-offs 'under protest', rather than these terms, they were locked out en masse and scab labour was brought in.

Union leaders made no attempt to mobilise wider sympathy and solidarity action, instead engaging in eight sets of talks with the employers. These culminated in them agreeing to present their members with the punitive 3 June package. At the same time, officials in the Scottish TUC have collaborated openly with the police to contain the scale of mass pickets. Union leaders have encouraged the police to stop and search coaches bringing supporters to the picket line, ensuring that they were delayed until after the scab workers were safely inside the plant. When the police have attacked the pickets, the union leaders have readily condemned 'outside agitators' for fomenting violence.

In the past, union officials often acted as a bureaucratic barrier to the organisation of effective industrial action. But their attitude towards the Timex dispute suggests that we are now dealing with something even worse. When the officials appear to spend all of their time trying to persuade workers to accept cuts packages and helping to police picket lines, it is legitimate to ask by what criteria these organisations can any longer be called trade unions.

No nostalgia

After five months on the picket line, Timex workers need to find a way to raise the stakes against management if they are to regain the initiative. Token mass pickets and demonstrations, with some ritual shoving and pushing, can only provide a training exercise for the police; it is not an effective way of putting pressure on the company. While it is important to keep up pressure on the scab workforce, it is necessary to devise more effective sanctions against the company, focusing on its retail operations, in Britain and abroad.

To defend jobs against ruthless employers like Timex, encouraged by more than a decade of anti-union laws and setbacks to workplace organisation and militancy, it will be necessary to break out of the straitjacket of the past and work out new forms of action and solidarity. Instead of indulging in nostalgia for a labour movement that no longer exists, we need to create new networks of activists around new strategies for action which can put workers' interests first and make no concessions to the employers and their stooges in the unions.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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