Last week a group of 12 workers at the Prisme packaging factory in Dundee decided that they weren’t going to be laid off with nothing and occupied their factory to demand their rights.
The occupied factory has now become a focus for resistance to an economy and a government that allows thousands to be laid off with little notice and no redundancy pay, while the wealth of those who have created this economic crisis remains untouched.
The workers arrived at work as usual on Wednesday of last week, but were given letters saying they were being made redundant.
The letters explained their redundancy entitlement but ended, “Unfortunately, we do not have any money to make these payments to you.”
One of the workers, Christine, explained, “Management just thought we would roll over, go home, and not bother. But we’ve been here for too long. We decided to stick together.
“You have to stand up for what is right. I’ve spent almost 15 loyal years here. There have been times when we went without wages for weeks just to keep the place going.
“We thought we’ve put too much into this place. There is no reason the fat cats should walk away with all the money and leave us with nothing.”
The Prisme workers have been overwhelmed by the support they have received.
Christine said, “We never thought that anyone would bother with us, we’re just a wee place. But the news of what we had done got around everywhere within hours. I got 200 texts and 30 phone calls in one day!”
In addition to messages from as far away as Australia, there have been visits from Unite, Unison and UCU trade unionists from across Scotland. Students have been gathering petitions and donations.
Prisme workers spoke to a CWU post workers’ union fringe meeting at the Scottish Labour Party conference, which raised £300 for them.
Secretary of the Dundee trades council, Mike Arnott, told Socialist Worker, “We will give whatever help we can, for as long as they need it, to this unanticipated act of resistance from a small but defiant group of workers.”
Angie worked at Prisme five years ago. Last Friday she hired a babysitter so she could stay over at the factory to support her former co-workers.
Children and grandchildren ran about in the occupation, while visiting students and trade unionists were entertained with cups of tea.
Outside the main door hangs the massive banner workers made using the computerised cutting machines that they are now sleeping next to.
Over the past few days, the Prisme workers have learned a lot about the shadowy world of British corporate law, which offers much more protection to shareholders and company directors than to workers.
The factory owners are able to avoid their legal responsibilities by not declaring insolvency or going into administration.
Prisme worker David explained, “The company just bled it dry – and now they say there is no money so it will ‘cease trading’ and won’t pay redundancy.
“And the law allows companies to do this. It is incredibly underhanded. We will be forced to go to the government and wait six months to get part of our redundancy.”
This loophole seems to encourage companies to be run into the ground and then closed, because it is the cheapest way of getting rid of their workers.
As Maureen, another Prisme worker, explained, “The reason there is no money left is because they spent it – they put it in their pockets!”
It has been a struggle to find out who the legal owners of the factory are, and workers have had to go on the internet and pay for that information.
Even the person who gave them their redundancy notices wouldn’t tell them who owned the factory.
After discovering who the majority shareholder of the company was, workers forced a meeting with him, but he denied that the redundancy payments were his responsibility.
And the man who was the former director says it’s nothing to do with him.
Not only is this corporate profiteering unjust, it results in an extraordinary waste of the skills and talents of workers. Lorraine is a skilled operator of the cutting machines.
She explained, “We work to millimetres – you must be totally precise. It took me two years to really get to know the machines, to be able to set them up and keep them going.”
“They are not interested in our skills,” added Christine. “We explained that we could get orders, and the orders are still coming in now!”
Workers are now in discussions about re-starting the company as a cooperative and are seeking public funds to help with this.
“We have now been given right of first refusal to lease the machines back from the company that owns them,” said David. “We are incredibly lucky that there are people who were willing to drop everything to support us.
“It is really humbling. I used to have a pretty poor opinion of humanity, with all the wars happening and the children dying.
“But it makes you realise that only a minority of people are doing these terrible things – the rest of us really look out for each other. That’s been proved here.”
Lorraine knows all about the power of solidarity. She was involved in the Timex strike in Dundee in 1993. “That was a struggle!” she said.
“We had pickets and marches, and people went to France and London and all over to raise support. But in the end we got the redundancy that we were due.”
Maureen had this advice for other workers in similar situations: “Hang in there, fight for your rights and don’t give up. It’s not easy, but the support is there.
“It has been tremendous.”
Please send messages of support to [email protected]
Donations can be made out to “TUC Lobby Fund”, and posted to Prisme Workers Solidarity, c/o Mike Arnott, Dundee TUC, 141 Yarrow Terrace, Menzieshill, Dundee, DD2 4DY