25 years on: Workers look back on Caterpillar factory sit in

(UK)  —  WHEN the American managers of a Scottish factory jetted in to tell staff the profitable plant was to be closed, the workforce decided they would take a stand and padlocked themselves in.

It was the start of a 103-day occupation of the Caterpillar factory in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, that earned the support of politicians, celebrities and a public who had already seen chunks of their industrial heartland ripped away.

The site is now a housing estate but memories aren’t easily concreted over.

John Brannan, 65, from Viewpark, was the face of the workforce during the dispute as the convenor of shop stewards at the factory.

At the time of the closure, the former AEEU official had been a hydraulic assembler at Caterpillar for 22 years. For him and others like him, it was more than a job.

“It wasn’t just a plant, it was a real community for everyone,” he said. “You went to the football and the dancing at the Barrowland with your mates from the Caterpillar.”

The bombshell was dropped on the 2000 workers at the plant, where most made around £70-80 a week, on the morning of January 14, 1987.

It came just months after the workforce had been told new investment was happening. They thought their future was secure.

But that morning management gathered the workforce and announced the news. Moments later, a hastily arranged shop stewards meeting resulted in the work in, a tactic most famously used by Jimmy Reid at the Upper Clyde Shipyards in the 70s.

The people of Scotland watched, and rallied round. They had seen huge parts of Scotland, including nearby steel mills and coal mines, decimated during the worst ravages of the Thatcher era.

Celebrities, local businesses, unions, members of the public and politicians of all party colours showed their support as the world looked on. The Illinois-based company was under all kinds of international pressure to reverse their plans to shift tractor manufacturing to a base in China.

It was the moment the working class backbone of Scotland stood up against the might of multi-national corporate greed, and gave as good as it got.

But for all the importance and symbolism of the Lanarkshire struggle, the real story is of the human effort.

John Brannan remembers the community the men and his family had through their work and it was this spirit that kept them going through the darkest hours of the dispute.

He said: “There were swimming clubs, fishing clubs, football clubs, chefs’ competitions, social events and Christmas parties.

“Four buses left from the Caterpillar to go the European Cup final in 1967, and another load for the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 1972. Once you were 18, it was the place you wanted to be. It was the moneyed place, the biggest work there was in the area.

“There was good relations with the management. There had been a torrid time getting unions recognised in 1958, which led to a 12-week strike, but after that there was only ever the odd fall out about wage rises.

“Just before the closure, Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Scotland, came to the plant in December and announced a £62million investment in a new production line.

“That was huge for us. There were lots of people buying new prams and toys for the weans at Christmas and making enormous, life-changing decisions on the fact that we were all told there was a bright future.”

As the wageless months wore on during the work in, local shops sent food parcels, workers got free haircuts at local barbers and it seemed like all of Scotland wanted to help. Politicians such as Neil Kinnock, Donald Dewar and Tony Benn visited, while they even got a note from Margaret Thatcher and support from Tory ministers Ian Lang and Michael Forsyth.

Legendary Scots comic Andy Cameron was part of a star-studded troupe who staged shows at the plant.

Inside, security staff were happy to cede 24 hour control of the gates to the Joint Occupying Committee.

The JOC also organised training programmes where the lads got lessons in typewriting and computing, while the secretarial staff were being taught how to drive tractors.

The production crew put their skills to good use by manufacturing a steely mascot, the Pink Panther tractor.

Using materials left in the plant, combined with donated parts and supplies from outside friends and traders, the men brought the effete beast to life.

They parked it in the middle of Glasgow’s George Square as a landmark for strike fund collections and, until a court order prevented it, the JOC had planned to donate it to the charity War on Want’s efforts in Nicaragua.

The then War on Want general secretary, and future Labour MP, George Galloway, said: “The air was thick with talk of famine and there was a desperate need for the machinery they were making in the Third World.

“In the end the company defeated our bid to use the Pink Panther, but we got it to George Square where we guarded it 24 hours a day in the winter weather. It was a joy to behold.”

For the management, the dispute ended up being mainly between the workers and the American owners, with local bosses and staff mostly maintaining good relations.

Then factory manager Ken Woodison, now 82, said: “Caterpillar had expanded and wanted to close plants in America, and they couldn’t close them there without closing some overseas first. We had no idea the lock in would last so long, and there were lots of meetings at ACAS and phone calls.

“We were getting accosted in the streets by people telling us what a lousy thing it was Caterpillar were doing.

“I had sympathy for them, because people didn’t know what they were going to do. I was 58 and had decided to retire early, but I had sympathy for the people that needed to work and didn’t have anywhere to go.”

John added: “The Americans couldn’t believe what was going on, and that we were allowed to do this. At one of the meetings, one of them said that back home they would just shoot us.”

After three months, the occupying force was down to the hundreds, as some of the white collar working staff and other strands of unions peeled away.

“It couldn’t go on though. Every week, we had votes about continuing and at the last meeting before the STUC conference in April, it had been won by just six votes. We had lots of meetings at the STUC conference in Perth, and the unions were telling us to stop andthat they would withdraw their support and strike money if we didn’t find an end to it.

“It was terrible, I was one of the last ones out when it closed. I have a great deal of pride in standing shoulder to shoulder with those men.”

In the end, the men went back to official work on April 27.

They had secured improved pay offs and, when the sad day came in November that year, when the padlocks were put on for the last time, every worker walked off site with their heads held high despite the lump in their throat and the tears in their eye.

A full 25 years later, the importance of what they achieved is still felt throughout politics and at home.


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