Forty years ago this month a workers’ occupation of Gardner’s factory in Eccles, Salford, showed it’s possible to stop mass redundancies.
It saw hundreds of workers take over their workplace when bosses announced plans to slash 500 jobs in 1980.
It was a time when unemployment was soaring. Thousands of jobs were going every day.
Gardner’s became a beacon of resistance.
As the occupation began, the personnel manager muttered, “You’ll never get away with this’. But after six weeks, the workers’ action forced bosses to retreat.
Strikers stood on picket lines inside, rather than outside the factory gates as usual.
Committees, which were open to any worker, ran the canteen, the picket roster and the entertainment.
Senior union stewards made provision for the hardship fund while safety reps continued to check conditions in the factory.
Gardner manufactured what was known as the “Rolls Royce” of diesel engines. The giant Hawker Siddeley aero manufacturing group bought the family firm in 1977 and started to attack the workforce.
When bosses announced the 590 redundancies, it was a shock but no surprise.
Gardner’s 2,500-strong workforce had known poor pay and conditions in the past.
Local teachers would threaten pupils, “If you don’t buck up, you’ll end up at Gardner’s.”
This began to change with a successful 13-week occupation over pay in 1973.
Afterwards workers adopted a tradition of holding factory floor collections whenever a striker from another dispute came on a solidarity visit.
Socialist politics became part of factory life. Tommy Macafee, a left winger who was willing to take on the company, was elected union convenor.
The senior shop steward, Mick Brightman, was well known as a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member. Other stewards were also members.
Union stewards leafleted the workforce for the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and Rock Against Racism Carnival in April 1978.
A mass meeting called over the redundancies overwhelmingly to go into dispute and strike if necessary.
Union steward Kevin Coen remembers that his section, and a few other well organised ones, decided to strike anyway should a mass meeting accept redundancies.
Mick Brightman says today, “Everyone has the right to work and, therefore, the right to fight for his or her job.
“Nobody has the right to vote to send another worker down the road.”
The occupation began the next day after workers had collected their wages.
Occupations are a powerful form of resistance to the bosses and can become a focal point for masses of people to get involved.
Under capitalism working class people are told that they’re too stupid to have a say.
But an occupation gives a glimpse of workers’ control of production.
Workers take over the assets and stop bosses moving equipment or closing down the building.
Gardner’s management was told the workers were now “the custodians of the factory”. “We believe it is our factory anyway, and we have elected to become custodians of it,” said one steward.
Another worker said, “It’s our factory now, we’re in control—we decide what happens.”
And in occupations and strikes, workers begin to organise themselves democratically.
Every day as many as ten delegations, mostly of young workers, toured workplaces around Britain. Strikers were even invited to other countries in Europe.
Speakers often got standing ovations and raised £77,000—more than £300,000 in today’s money—over the next six weeks.
Glasgow socialist Dave Sherry, then a leading trade unionist, remembers six strikers coming to the city.
Three teams of two strikers, plus one or two local SWP members, covered 50 workplaces in three days, with the strikers growing in confidence with every visit.
Collections took place in many engineering plants and shipyards, local government and civil service workplaces, schools and smaller workplaces.
The delegations were so successful that the Engineering Employers Federation warned its members about them.
Two of the delegations went to the headquarters of the workers’ union—now Unite—in London.
Officials agreed to give official support and strike pay in record time after a threat to occupy the union offices.
A key moment came when one striker discovered the company’s addressograph, a machine for printing addresses on envelopes.
They used it to inform every Gardner’s worker—including those who weren’t actively involved in the occupation—about the near-unprecedented support the strike was getting.
After five weeks the company entered talks with union officials.
Hawker Siddeley withdrew the redundancy notices and met other demands. At last, there was a real victory in a big company.
The lesson was not lost.
Many employers now thought twice about redundancies. And many workers were inspired to resist, notably at Laurence Scott motors factory in nearby Openshaw a few months later.
The Gardner dispute stood out against the general trend with the dole queues getting longer. It showed that people could act for themselves.
Today, that lesson is as true as ever—resistance requires combining socialist politics with organising on the shop floor, in the union, among workers’ families and in the working class.
‘Instead of losing our jobs we could be making wind turbines’
An attack on jobs is taking place now at Rolls-Royce plants across Britain.
Workers at the Barnoldswick site in Lancashire have recently voted for strikes against an immediate threat to 350 jobs.
It shows that workers can be won to resistance, despite the pandemic and the “common sense” that jobs have to go.
Elsewhere, Alan is one of the workers facing the threat of redundancy at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby.
But so far there hasn’t been official resistance.
“When I enquired if there will be a ballot for strikes, I was told, not now because of the ‘requirements of business’,” he told Socialist Worker.
In April, the union accepted a “temporary” 10 percent pay cut.
Bosses now say they want to slash around 3,000 jobs across Rolls-Royce’s British plants, including 1,700 jobs in Derby.
Alan explained that, ahead of the redundancies, “the union is negotiating a redundancy package that could see someone with ten years’ service get only £15,000 instead of £35,000”.
But the danger is that unless there is a fight from below that it will be accepted.
Too many union leaders push the idea that what’s good for the company is good for workers.
And that drains the confidence to oppose the bosses’ plans.
There is an alternative to accepting the logic of making workers pay.
Workers at Rolls-Royce have skills that could be used, for instance, to meet the challenge of climate change.
Alan says, “Rolls-Royce should have diversified away from aero engines and towards energy, where you have a lot of potential.
“We could make things like wind turbines or power generators—anything along those lines.”
Whole industries—such as aviation, car production and engineering—could be repurposed without loss of pay or jobs.
But winning that will take strikes, occupations and protests.
It will also take a political argument based on the idea of an economy meeting social need, not accumulating profits for a minority.