BBC Scotland's recent television programme The Factory brought back wonderful memories of the Lee Jeans occupation of 1981 here in Greenock.
As platers’ shop steward in the local Scott Lithgow shipyard I recall chairing a meeting on the morning of 6 February 1981 during which workers had little interest in the business of the meeting but were more concerned about what we should be doing to support “the sit-in”.
Around 240 mainly women workers at the local Lee Jeans factory had occupied it the previous night to prevent its closure by the American multinational VF Corporation.
Having agreed in our yard to a weekly levy of 50p to support the occupation, we raised this with the joint shop stewards’ committee and in virtually no time every shipbuilding and engineering worker in the Lower Clyde was having 50p stopped from their wages every week.
The VF Corporation had opened the Greenock plant in 1970 with the aid of government grants and sweeteners — on condition that it remained for a set period of time.
That time was now up and they intended to close the plant and move the machinery to Northern Ireland to take advantage of similar government grants available there.
The programme recounts some of the drama and, indeed, comedy of the situation. Margaret Wallace described being sent out to the local chippy for 240 fish suppers.
Alf Young, business editor of the Glasgow Herald, explained that the wholly male management of the plant was entirely compliant with the company’s plans. It was the largely female workforce, led magnificently by convenor Helen Monaghan, that resisted. Women workers addressed meetings all over the country.
Film of Labour leader Michael Foot pledging the party’s full support adds an antiquarian element to the whole thing. The very idea of the present incumbent supporting a factory occupation is laughable.
Yet the abiding memory of the sit-in was the extent to which it was run by and supported largely by rank and file trade unionists.
Helen was quoted as saying that the workers’ own union, the National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers, simply wished they would go away. It was two months before the union got round to making the dispute official!
Journalist Ruth Wishart remembered that many of the great and good of the trade union hierarchy, while publicly supporting the fight, were privately advising Helen that the workers had no chance and should settle for redundancy deals.
There is a poignant moment when Helen Monaghan, asked by a journalist about a redundancy offer, looks the camera in the eye and says, “Would you sell your job for £1,000?”
It should never be forgotten that this took place after the defeat of the national steel strike. The traditionally militant Chrysler car plant at nearby Linwood closed at the same time with no fight. Thatcher was in the process of seeking to destroy the trade union movement.
On 30 April 1981 thousands of shipyard workers downed tools and attended a rally at the factory. This was the date when the redundancy deal was to be confirmed and rumours spread that attempts would be made to forcibly end the occupation.
In the event the mighty VF Corporation was not brave enough. I was intrigued to see footage of myself and former colleagues at this rally with full heads of hair and many fewer wrinkles than are evident today!
At the rally, Helen said, “We didn’t know when we occupied the factory where the help would come from, but we hadn’t long to find out. Without the support of trade unionists we wouldn’t have lasted this long and with your continued support we’ll keep fighting.”
The champagne was finally uncorked in August 1981 when a management buy-out saved all the jobs.
There is no doubt that Helen Monaghan was a passionate and determined leader and the women interviewed in the programme emphasised the love and respect they had for her. Yet Helen herself recalls regular meetings within the factory and emphasised that you are only as strong as the people beside you.
Many of the women interviewed confessed to an ignorance of trade unionism and politics at the outset. But in many ways this naivety contributed to their eventual success.
They were not as beholden to the union bureaucracy as many male trade unionists were at the time, and therefore they were less likely to be influenced by their pessimism and unwillingness to fight.
One year after the Lee Jeans victory I was victimised and dismissed from the shipyard. An immediate 50p per week levy was donated by all Lee’s workers to the ensuing strike fund. This was unqualified support. When we offered to send a speaker to explain the issues involved, Helen Monaghan insisted it was unnecessary. She said, “You supported us, we’ll support you!”
Lee Jeans saw the explosive power of fresh forces entering the struggle at work and refusing to have their battle limited by bureaucratic union leaders. Sounds a good lesson for today.