Elsewhere on this blog we have argued the importance of workers’ occupations when resisting workplace closures and/or mass redundancies. Here, we run material from the frontlines of an historic occupation that took place at an engineering factory in Manchester, England in 1981. The Laurence Scott occupation, although it took place well over 30 years ago and on the other side of the world, is of enduring significance. The forces arraigned against each other at Laurence Scott’s are typical of most such disputes, including the tactics of the bosses, the role of the state and the role of the top union officials. Also of enduring importance is the need for politics that are up to the requirements of these kinds of struggles. Indeed, all the problems that confront our class in vital industrial disputes were there at Laurence Scott in 1981.
This article is in three parts, by three different authors: Dave Hallsworth, Kate Marshall and Pat Roberts.
- The Road to the Occupation
- The Occupation
- The Sell-Out and Lessons
The three parts look at the background to the dispute, the politics of the union officialdom, the problems that workers faced from the start and how revolutionary-minded workers in the factory, and their supporters outside it, dealt with the problems confronting them, the evolution of the dispute, its outcome and lessons for workers who want to fight rather than just be walked over.
Part 1: The road to the occupation
by Dave Hallsworth
On 7 April 1981, Arthur Snipe, owner of Doncaster-based conglomerate Mining Supplies, announced the closure of the Manchester plant of his recently-acquired group of companies – the Laurence Scott and Electromotors group. Mining Supplies bought up the Scott group only a few months previously for a knockdown price of ₤6.5 million. At the time market value was estimated by independent accountants to be around ₤18.5 million.
At the time of the takeover Snipe gave the usual assurances about maintaining the LSE Group as a going concern and guaranteeing jobs and conditions. But Snipe didn’t spend ₤6.5 million for fun. Like all capitalists he wants to get the highest rate of return on his investment.
Following the announcement that the factory would close on 10 July the workforce began to discuss its response. There was agreement that some action had to be taken to save jobs. But what kind of action?
After heated debate the workforce voted to occupy the factory. When the workers took over on 24 April management was taken aback. After all, the 650 employees of LSE had no tradition of militancy. Indeed, the workforce had only recently accepted short-time work and was even resigned to the inevitability of redundancies.
The bosses were not slow to counter-attack. Noting that a substantial minority of workers had voted against the occupation they felt confident about their ability to split the workforce. So on 29 April, Mining Supplies wrote to all employees threatening to sack anyone who did not return to work by Tuesday, 5 May. The implication of this letter was clear – workers were in breach of their contract so those with less than 12 years’ service would forfeit all redundancy pay. The objective of this notice was to force the younger workers to break the occupation. It failed.
On 3 May a factory meeting voted 313 to 247 to continue the occupation. Despite the employers’ expectations the younger workers were the strongest supporters of continuing the action. Full-time AUEW organiser John Tocher argued that if the workforce gave in every employer in Manchester would claim that workers were in breach of contract whenever they were in dispute. Sackings for striking would becme commonplace and the union would be smashed. So far so good.
Behind the occupation
Following the 7 April announcement of closure the local union officials approached the Engineering Research Unit at Manchester Polytech to work out an economic case for keeping LSE open. It quickly produced a document which was distributed to every worker in the factory. The arguments in it were based on the ‘lessons’ of the Gardner’s occupation. It called for ‘realism’ and compromise:
“The unions accepted short-time working as preferable to redundancies and if the factory stays open they realistically accept that if orders do not increase they will have to negotiate redundancies, exploring fully ways of obtaining reductions in the size of the workforce by voluntary means” (Engineering Research Unit, p2).
This message was reiterated by Tocher at the 24 April factory meeting. The result was that right from the start the aim of the occupation was unclear. Was it to save jobs or was it to find an alternative method of giving them up?
The ‘realism’ which the local union officials share with the Engineering Research Unit implies that redundancies are better than closures. Their arguments are based entirely on what makes sense from the point of view of Arthur Snipe. They advised workers to reconcile their interests with the commercial criteria used by the company.
The bureaucrats’ ‘case’
The union officials were prepared to put the case of the workforce in accordance with the business needs of the bosses. Thus the call for compromise contained in the Research Group document was appended to the first appeal sheet for funds. This was only changed under pressure from supporters of the next step. However the bureaucrats’ second attempt was no better. This is how their case for staying open read:
- Profitable over last 9 years.
- Made profit of ₤70,000 last year. Rest of Group lost ₤1.8m. Yet we are closing down.
- Ongoing order book. Current unexecuted orders of ₤2.75 million. Projected order book ₤8m for the next financial year.
- Complete solidarity of the site unions involved.
AUEW, EETPU, TGWU, APEX, TASS, ASTMS, ASB
It was an attempt to tell the bosses that they were bad businessmen who didn’t know their own trading position. Unfortunately, Mining Supplies know their business. They’re out for maximum profits and LSE Manchester does not fit into their plans. If the unions use economic arguments for their case they’re merely preparing the ground for their own defeat.
The tactics of doom
The tactics of the LSE occupation reflected the narrow objectives of the local union officials. Instead of stepping up the fight and placing the maximum pressure on Mining Supplies, the leadership inside the factory ran the occupation in first gear. It was manned by shifts of only 40 workers. By not plannng regular mass meetings the union officials discouraged workers from playing an active role in the day-to-day affairs of the occupation. As a result the potential power of all 650 LSE workers was ignored. The occupation was all set to become a harmless bureaucratically-run affair. Initially nobody took steps to extend the struggle through flying pickets and solidarity action.
Regular factory meetings are crucial in an occupation. Without them workers become isolated and more prone to the arguments of the bosses and the media. Mass meetings are particularly important in a dispute such as LSE where there is a large number of reluctant workers. It is important to bring everyone together so that the experiences of the struggle can be assimilated and the spirit of struggle spread.
The more that workers are involved in an occupation the less reliant they become on the local bureaucrats. Workers who participate in struggle become aware of the ins and outs of the situation and can resist the attempts of the labour bureaucrats to negotiate behind the scenes. These were some of the points raised by supporters of the next step inside the factory. Our first success came on 3 May when it was decided to send flying pickets to Mining Supplies HQ in Doncaster. It was none too soon to go on the offensive.
the next step
Supporters of the next step have been active inside LSE for some time. Our first bulletin went into the factory following the takeover at the end of 1980. At that time the employers bullied the shop floor into a shorter working week under the government’s Temporary, Short Time Work Compensation Scheme. At that point a four-day week was introduced. Our bulletin argued against accepting the worsening of conditions that a four-day week meant:
“We are in a situation where we have to be as unreasonable in defence of our interests as the boss is in defence of his. We have to tell whoever buys Scotts that we are not accepting a worsening of our conditions just so that their position can be bettered” (the next step factory bulletin, October 1980, Laurence Scott and Electromotors).
The warning proved timely. Before long the factory was on a three-day week and wages were reduced. The factory leadership accepted the new conditions and wage reductions without a fight and Mining Supplies were confident they were on a winner. Unlike the factory leadership they understood that short-time work was the first step towards redundancies and closure.
When the closure of the factory was announced we out out our second bulletin. One of the reasons why short-time had been so easily accepted was the confidence of the skilled men that their jobs were safe. The shop floor was split. Only the testing bay and the winding room opposed the shop stewards’ recommendations. Sectional interests surfaced and many skilled workers ignored the threat to the jobs of the semi-skilled and unskilled. The closure plans cut across sectional interests. They affected all workers and support for strike action had to come from all.
The record of the local union officials was not one to inspire the confidence of the workforce. Therefore the first instinct of many workers was to accept redundancy money rather than risk all in a fight to save jobs. However, over the next couple of weeks, the realisation that unemployment would not go away gave many workers second thoughts. Support for some sort of action began to grow. Supporters of the next step played a major role kin winning backing for an occupation.
Our bulletin was put out on 23 April after the publication of the Manchester Polytechnic document and a day before the factory meeting. It directly challenged the findings of of Polytechnic report:
“We must state clearly that we will not accept closure or redundancies. NOT A JOB MUST BE SOLD. Gardner’s made the mistake of only opposing compulsory redundancies. They ended up with over 300 voluntary job losses. Some victory! It would be no victory to agree with redundancy instead of closure” (the next step factory bulletin, April 1981, LSE).
The bulletin went on to argue for an immeidate occupation and put the case against proposals for delaying action til 10 July – the closure date. The arguments were discussed and debated for two days and helped convince many to support immediate occupation.
Once the action began we sought to challenge the passive lines on which the occupation was run:
“What we do now will determine whether we win or lose. If we sit back and wait, Snipe will be relatively unconcerned. After all he has many factories. He plans to close ours anyway. It will not be much of a problem for him to sit it out if all we affect is his Manchester operation.
“We have to go on the offensive. The ₤2.25 million of work on the shop floor is nothing compared to the profit he is making elsewhere. We need to organise groups of workers to go out from Manchester to his other factories” (the next step factory bulletin, April 1981, LSE).
Many LSE workers now agree on the need to step up the fight.
The arguments for militant action are relatively easy to present. It is much more difficult to mobilise for the defence of every job. The choice of voluntary redundancies seems realistic to many trade unionists. It fits in well with the politics of sacrifice and compromise that dominate the trade union movement. Right from the start of the occupation our supporters argued against this option. What is at issue is whether class compromise or the class struggle is the best way for defending living standards.
Workers throughout Britain have a fine tradition of union organisation and aggressive industrial action. The problem as always is the political perspective that influences this militancy. At Gardner’s it was directed towards compromise and ‘realism’. At LSA we’re fighting for our class and not their firm. Whether we win or lose at LSE depends on which political perspective prevails.
The above piece appeared in the May 1981 issue of the next step.
Part 2: The Occupation
by Kate Marshall
To prevent the closure of their factory, workers at the Laurence Scott Electromotors plant in Manchester have been in occupation since 24 April. After a hesitant start, the workforce, now in its third month of taking over the factory, have begun extending the occupation. In June pickets went out to the Laurence Scott plant in Norwich. But the most effective step taken so far has been the pickets at the Doncaster factory owned by Laurence Scott boss Arthur Snipe. Despite protests from AUEW officials the picketing of the Doncaster factory began on 6 July.
The first thing that the Manchester pickets did when they arrived was to organise a meeting with the Doncaster workers. Laurence Scott workers were applauded when they delcared their determination to fight any loss of jobs. The picket was highly effective. Most suppliers were turned away, including the Royal Mail. Dave Hallsworth of the Laurence Scott Action Committee noted: “Snipe was really getting nervous. On the second day of the picketing he drove his Rolls Royce onto the pavement, in an attempt to run over or frighten the pickets. In the event, the pickets were able to jump out of the way, and only their chairs and picket boards were crushed by the Rolls.” According to Dave, the Doncaster picket “gave a real boost to morale. Many of the men said the Doncaster picket should have been put on from the start.”
The escalation of picketing action has forced Snipe’s hand. His response was the time-honoured carrot and stick approach. Four days after the Doncaster picket started Snipe took out an injunction to regain possession of his Manchester plant. His solicitors boasted that the plant would be back in Snipe’s hands within the week. He followed up this legal step by sending redundancy payment cheques to the Manchester workers. But, while all this was going on, Snipe initiated secret discussions with the union negotiators.
The bureaucrats sell out
Throughout the dispute supporters of the next step inside the occupation warned of the dangers of relying on union officials to win the fight. Ave Hallsworth picks up the story: “We knew the record of the AUEW officials. We knew that despite their militant rhetoric they would take the first opportunity to sell us short. So we took every opportunity to warn the workers not to let the conduct of the dispute slip out of their hands. We were particularly angry at those who should have known better. Members of the IMG and SWP were prominent in their adulation of the officials involved. If you read Socialist Worker or Socialist Challenge you would not have guessed that week in and week out the AUEW bureaucrats were trying to sell us out.”
Matters came to a head over the Doncaster picket. The union officials used every excuse to postpone this action. The Broad Left officials in the AUEW were particularly prominent in obstructing the fight. The secretary of the Confed from Sheffield phoned through in an attempt to get the picket called off. Ken Cure, the AUEW Executive Committee official in charge of the AUEW side of the dispute also put the boot in and sent Doug Daniels, the union district secretary, who made a hard speech demanding that the picket de dropped. Fortunately, despite this harassment, the shop stewards voted 18 to 4 to carry on with the planned picket.
Once the Doncaster picket began to bite negotiations began. Top bureaucrats Terry Duffy, Alex Ferry, Roy Grantham, Eric Winterbottom, Bob McCusker and convenor Bob Penchion joined Arthur Snipe in working out the sell-out. On Friday 10 July rumours began to circulate that union and management had made a deal. All this time the workplace was kept in the dark and the first they knew of the impending sell-out was when their convenor, Bob Penchion, suddenly resigned.
Next day, Saturday, the local officials presented the memorandum of agreement to the workforce. The deal was brutally simple in its logic. Snipe promised to operate a two-day week for a three-month period. After three months the viability of the company would be assessed and redundancies would take place according to the needs of the firm. In return, management would regain control of the factory and the court action would be withdrawn. In addition the agreement stipulated the return of the redundancy payment. The local bureaucrats presented this agreement as an instruction to the workers and warned that if it was not accepted then official recognition of the strike would be withdrawn.
Battle lines are drawn
The militants were furious. Just when the occupation was becoming effective the union bureaucrats agreed to a sell-out. The concession of a two-day week for three months was an insult to workers who had given up everything to save their jobs. Dave Hallsworth tells us what happened next:
“That Saturday we began to make plans for fighting this sell-out. We knew we only had a few days as the deal was going to be put to a meeting of the workplace on Tuesday. On Monday we went all out to mobilise opposition to the deal. We put out a next step bulletin and argued the case for continuing the occupation. In the evening my AUEW branch in Ashton unanimously passed a motion of censure against the officials handling the dispute.
“When Tuesday came we knew that the workforce was in the picture. To the dismay of the union bureaucrats only 21 people voted for a sell-out. To show our determination we organised a demonstration at the Crown Court hearing of Snipe’s application for an injunction that afternoon. Everyone saw that we meant to fight on and the hearing was postponed another week.”
The occupation has now reached a critical stage. The union leaders have been thwarted for the time being. Their frustration was well expressed by the Morning Star, the voice of the Broad Left bureaucrats in the unions. On Monday 13 July the Morning Star greeted the settlement and noted “Mr Snipe has accepted that the factory should be kept open and every effort be made to create a viable future.” The next day the Morning Star noted a “dramatic development”. The workers had rejected a settlement even though they “appeared to have achieved the main aim of the strike – to prevent closure with a loss of 650 jobs”.
How the promise of a two-day week for three months came to constitute “the main aim of the strike” the Morning Star did not care to explain. In the end the Communist Party paper found assurance in the fact “that the AUEW executive yesterday decided to send secutive council member Ken Cure to Manchester in an attempt to persuade the Laurence Scott workers to reverse their decision” (Morning Star, 15 July 1981).
The Morning Star did not report what happened to Ken Cure when he got to Manchester. As he approached the local AUEW office he noticed that a crowd of angry Laurence Scott workers were waiting for him. Before you could say ‘Morning Star’, Ken Cure disappeared.
The danger ahead
The rejection of the union leaders’ sell-out should not obscure the fact that they have the power to sabotage the occupation. By Wednesday 15 July they were busy trying to work out a new formula with Snipe. If they’re allowed to monopolise negotiations they can demoralise the workforce by coming back time and again with yet another sell-out. The logical alternative to this bureaucratic manipulation is for the workers in the occupation to take direct responsibility for the negotiations.
The other danger is that at present only a minority of the workforce believes that the fight against all redundancies can be won. Laurence Scott, unlike other occupations such as the one at Gardner’s, is unique in that the argument to oppose voluntary redundancies has been put forward consistently. But, unfortunately, many hardened ‘realists’ of the Broad Left and radical left have acted to narrow the scope of the struggle. As a result still too many workers believe that voluntary redundancies would be an acceptable alternative to voluntary ones.
The success of the occupation depends on waging an effective campaign against the bureaucrats. Any solution which accepts the profitability of the company as its criterion must be rejected. The only criterion that’s of relevance is the material interests of workers. Dave Hallsworth has the last word: “I am more optimistic now than ever before. In the beginning many were reluctant to escalate the occupation. Now people see we have a hard fight on our hands and that we can win support outside.
“The last week has also shown where the politics of the Broad Left officials lead. That’s something to work on. This important experience and the politics of the next step can be a powerful combination in strengthening the fight back.”
The above piece appeared in the July/August 1981 issue of the next step.
Part 3: The Sell-Out and Lessons
by Pat Roberts
There have been many occupations of British factories over the past ten years. Laurence Scott and Electromotors’ plant at Openshaw, Manchester itself played a leadng role in the wave of sit-ins in the area in support of the 1972 engineering pay claim. In recent years many workers have occupied their workplaces in an attempt to save jobs. The significance of the LSE occupation, which ended after 116 days on 18 August with the forcible eviction of the workers, was that two fundamentally opposed ways of resisting redundancies were clearly put before the workers.
On the one side were those who stood for ‘defending’ jobs through compromise with the employer: they identified with management’s concerns about viability and profitability and called for voluntary rather than compulsory redundancy, for running LSE with a drastically reduced workforce rather than total shutdown. In this camp were the trade union officials at every level from the council chamber of the AUEW (Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers – RL) to the convenors and shop stewards’ offices at LSE and many of the workers.
On the other side were those who stood for defending jobs by fighting the employer: they rejected all consideration of the firm’s financial position and insisted that the workers’ needs were their sole priority. They demanded that all jobs should be maintained and that workers should make no concessions on pay and conditions to help the company make higher profits. In this camp were supporters of the next step at the factory, led by Revolutionary Communist Party member Dave Hallsworth, and a steadily growing body of rank-and-file workers.
The terms on which the bureaucrats conducted the LSE occupation, and finally sold it out, were clear right from the start. At his first meeting with the LSE workers to discuss Snipe’s decision to close the factory AUEW full-timer John Tocher propounded the ‘realistic approach that finally sent 650 workers down the road. Tocher advised that the workers should fight to keep LSE open but should recognise, realistically, that there would have to be substantial redundancies.
When challenged on this by angry LSE workers he modified his position to appease the Manchester workers by saying that the redundancies should come from the LSE group as a whole. But this hint at the transfer of sackings from Manchester to Norwich or Blantyre altered nothing in the basic argument – it simply revealed the divisive consequences of the bureaucrats’ strategy within the LSEclaim. Tocher’s approval of ‘substantial redundancies’ was the thin end of a wedge that was driven slowly home during the long weeks of the occupation.
The local bureaucrats’ first move was to commission the Engineering Research Unit at Manchester Polytechnic to provide some economic justifications for keeping LSE open. The academics, of course, also took a ‘realistic’ view:
“The unions accepted short time working as preferable to redundancies and if the factory stays open they realistically accept that if orders do not increase then they will have to negotiate redundancies, exploring fully ways of obtaining reductions in the size of the workforce by voluntary means. The main point remains that keeping open at a reduced level means that the factory remains to provide work locally, and would be there to take advantage of any future upturn in the economy.”
The professors were right to point to the union’s consistency in accepting short time working in October 1980 and their willingness to endorse redundancies six months later. Short time work not only meant wage cuts, it was also divisive as it was operated differently in different sections. Yet only supporters of the next step – who put out a factory bulletin at the time – opposed the short time scheme. For Snipe, it tested out the workforce and gave him the confidence to go for all out closure.
The Engineering Research document, with its message of ‘realism’ and compromise, was distributed to every LSE worker. It became the charter which guided the bureaucrats’ resistance to closure. The central message of the bureaucrats’ charter was that Snipe’s Manchester operation was vital to his own commercial interests and the wider needs of the country. The proposed shutdown was therefore, they suggested, a big mistake:
“Though much of the production of mining machinerhy could be transferred to Norwich it can be made profitably at Manchester, and given the long-term importance of adequate coal supllies, retaining the capacity at Manchester is crucial.”
The logical weakness of this argument simply reflects the fact that the union officials and their friends at the Poly are not successful businessmen like Arthur Snipe. But they have loftier concerns than making profits – the defence of the realm:
“There are four Polaris subs based at Faslane, and at any any one time one is in dock being refurbished after a six-month tour of duty. Each time this occurs the electrical motors are taken out and sent down to LSE, Manchester to be overhauled. As each sub has only one set of spare motors, the twelve plus months delay that will occur could mean that one or more of the Polaris submarines might have to be taken out of service.”
Thus the bureaucrats tried to reconcile LSE workers’ need for jobs with Snipe’s hunger for profit and the nation’s need for coal and an effective nuclear strike force! (The sentimental attachment of trade union officials and radical academics for nuclear disarmament seems to have been suspended for the course of the dispute.) Unfortunately for the bureaucrats – and even more unfortunately for the LSE workers – Snipe knows how to maximise his profits, and LSE Manchester no longer has a place in Mining Supplies’ corporate plans.
From the start the local officials narrowed the objectives of the occupation to keeping LSE open with a greatly diminished workforce. They did not oppose all redundancies, but Snipe’s insistence on making everyone redundant and his way of going about it. The arguments provided by the Research Unit, backed up by affirmations of the LSE unions’ record of co-operation with management, were repeated by the shop stewards as well as by the full-time officials throughout the occupation.
Supporters of the next step began the fight against the LSE sellout last October. Our bulletin clearly put the needs of the workers above any consideration of the viability of the company: “We have to tell whoever runs Scotts that we are not accepting a worsening of our conditions just so that their position can be bettered.”
After the closure was announced in April we immediately put out another bulletin to repudiate the bureaucrats’ argument that mass redundancies were an alternative to closure. And to call for an immediate occupation. (Some of the officials were in favour of occupying but in July when existing orders were completed.) The occupation began.
The conflict between what was realistic from the point of view of the company and what was realistic from the point of view of its workers recurred at every turn in the occupation. Regular articles in the next step, factory bulletins and constant discussions at meetings, on shift duty, on pickets and delegations to other factories – all emphasised our stand against all redundancies and opposition to the apologetics of the officials. We had to take on the right-wing leadership of the AUEW, the local Broad left officials and the leading factory representatives because when it came to the crunch their positions were the same.
Early in June the terms of the final sellout were already emerging. Union representatives, including Tocher, met Snipe for negotiations. They proposed “rationalisations throughout the group, discussions on early retirement and work sharing” (Morning Star, 3 June). Snipe, sensing that victory was within his grasp, rejected this offer of partial surrender and went for the kill. A month later he got it at negotiations in London with Confed officials and LSE convenor Bob Penchion.
The first provision of the 10 July “conditions for reopening the Openshaw factory” was that “the unions agree that some redundancy is inevitable”. Ruthlessly exploiting this fatal flaw in the militant defence of jobs at LSE, Snipe’s deal with the bureaucrats offered a minimum two-day week for three months when “the future position will be reviewed. . . the company intention will be to ensure a viable future for the Openshaw establishment. This may necessitate operating the company on reduced premises.”
Nobody is in any doubt that a viable future for Snipe means no future for most, if not all, LSE workers. This deal was rejected by the stewards and the convenor resigned, but the fact that most stewards accepted its basic premises weakened their position. The bureaucrats were able to stop strike pay, isolate the occupation and allow the state to go through the process of returning the factory to its owners.
Every left-wing paper condemned the sellout and the role of right-wing national officials like Terry Duffy and Ken Cure in enforcing it. But only the next step and its supporters inside and outside the factory challenged the political strategy that united Manchester Broad Left officials and LSE shop stewards with the Confed leaders. Members of the Socialist Workers Party and International Marxist Group, who played a supportive role to the local trade union officials in the dispute, never questioned their political strategy. Furthermore, they endorsed the conservative tactics that followed this strategy.
Our first bulletin during the occupation proposed flying pickets: “We have to go on the offensive and bring more pressure to bear on Snipe. . . We need to organise groups of workers to go out from Manchester to his other factories. Mining Supplies in Doncaster and Laurence Scott at Norwich are particularly important.”
But the leadership of the occupation plodded along, reluctant to up the stakes, and refused to organise pickets. It proceeded through official channels to hold fruitless discussions with convenors at Doncaster and Norwich.
The bureaucrats’ great hope was to mobilise Arthur Scargill’s Yorkshire miners against Snipe’s operation at Doncaster. Scargill, however, was all talk and no action. He said he would blaack Mining Supplies when the factory itself and the entire LSE group became involved in the dispute – in other words when there was no need for blacking. Scargill was safe enough because the Doncaster plant was cowed by past victimisations; Norwich was reeling frm 90 percent redundancies. The Yorkshire miners’ token donation to the LSE occupation fund was meanwhile celebrated in the radical left press.
Towards the end of June, Dave Hallsworth and some of the more militant shop stewards, impatient at the slow progress of the occupation, formed an Action Committee. Dave’s proposal of sending teams of pickets to Doncaster and Manchester was initially opposed by local SWP and IMG organisers who attended the committee: they condemned it as adventuristic and favoured further approaches to the AUEW and NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) officials. When they discovered the extent of support for the pickets among the LSE ran-and-file they backed down. In the event, the flying pickets, which began in early July, whilst they did not bring Snipe’s empire to a standstill, did cause considerable disruption. They were also a boost to flagging morale at the Manchester factory.
Defying the courts
In the closing stages of the occupation the question of how to deal with the bailiffs and the police became a pressing one for the LSE workers. Snipe’s first reaction to the rejection of the Confed deal by a mass meeting was to apply to the courts for a re-possession order. We urged the need to resist eviction – and the need to win wider support to make resistance effective:
“For us the occupation of the factory is crucial to our holding together. The fact that we held the factory as a hostage for our jobs gave us the base from which to carry the fight to Doncaster. Without that base the fight would be a thousand times more difficult. The holding of the factory is a hostage to the unions as well as to Mining Supplies. It has been the basis of the tremendous support throughout the trade union movement. . . They have been quick to nail the writ to the door. It is another tnhing altogether for them to enforce it” (LSE occupation bulletin, #5, August).
Once again the officials urged caution and moderation. Through the agency of local Labour MP Charles Morris some of the stewards, in association with the SWP, made informal arrangements for a peaceful evacuation when the bailiffs arrived. But the 10 August mass meeting that voted to continue the occupation also voted, after a speech by Dave Hallsworth, to resist eviction right up to the end.
Running an occupation
Supporters of the next step waged a constant battle inside the occupation against the bureaucratic way it was conducted. The officials ran the occupation as a small clique: they never covened a meeting of all the shop stewards and only called occasional mass meetings when obliged to. We called for regular mass meetings to ensure the widest possible political discussion and assessment of the experience of occupation.
The officials tried to blame their conservative approach on the supposed backwardness of the rank-and-file. “If we have a mass meeting,” said one of the officials, “they’ll vote to call off the occupation.” The radical left groups – whose members largely fraternised with the bureaucrats rather than the rank-and-file – echoed this prejudice. But, as it proceeded, the occupation itself proved them wrong.
The occupation threw the workers into a political turmoil. Many had worked at LSE for 20 years and more: they now had about as littlechance as the young apprentices of getting another job in recession-struck Manchester. Workers were bitter about Snipe from the start – they were bitter too about Duffy and Tocher by the end. And it was the rank-and-file workers who were more open to considering an alternative to the official AUEW way of defending jobs. Thus while the shop stewards tended to echo the arguments of the full-time officials and follow their political lead, the rank-and-file workers were more prepared to take up an independent stand.
The presence of Dave Hallsworth as an exponent of working class politics on the factory floor at LSE provided a constant counter-weight to the bureaucracy. It helped to ensure a solid core of support for militant tactics. The response of many workers to the Doncaster pickets was “we should have started these weeks ago”. And many more responded positively to the call for an aggressive stand against the bailiffs and the police. The bureaucrats in reality did not fear that the rank-and-file would respond to greater democratic control over the occupation by calling it off; they feared that the rank-and-file would step it up and possibly take it out of the constraining hands of the bureaucracy.
The LSE occupation began to draw lines that will be of increasing importance in the months ahead – between bureaucrats and radicals who stand for class compromise and revolutionaries and workers who see that the only way forward for workers is through the class struggle. The LSE occupaton may be over but it stands as an example of how -and how not – to fight for jobs today.
The above piece first appeared in the September 1981 issue of the next step.
For an account of the occupation in the light of the industrial/political situation in Britain twenty years later, see this 2002 article by Dave Hallsworth, here. Dave died in 2007, for an obit by a comrade, see here (there are ads a few paragraphs down, so remember to scroll down below them to read the rest of the obit – Dave had a fascinating life).