Bitter anniversary for print pickets: The 'dignity of labour' holiday rings hollow in Bristol, reports Barrie Clement

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JACQUI BABER will never vote Conservative again. 'I always thought unions wanted to run the country, but now it's gone too far the other way,' she says. Ms Baber, with 120 colleagues, lost her job with the upmarket printing company Arrowsmith in Bristol a year ago last week.

Her employment was terminated, quite legitimately in legal terms, for refusing to work overtime, despite a lawful ballot to take industrial action over the company's refusal to negotiate on a pay claim.

'It came as a surprise to us that you can obey the law to the letter and still be sacked,' said Ms Baber, a 29-year-old typesetter who now takes turns to picket the plant. After a lengthy lock-out, the printworkers were finally dismissed for refusing to sign a document accepting inferior conditions and 'derecognition' of their union, the GPMU.

None signed and all were sacked, including one man with 43 years' service who was a day away from retirement, two women on maternity leave, and others who were either on holiday or away sick.

Since then, the company has recruited a new workforce. But evidence that it might not be entirely up to previous standard has emerged in the past 12 months as some of the company's more prestigious orders were lost. Arrowsmith produces mathematical and scientific journals for universities and other learned institutions.

The former Arrowsmith employees are determined to be on the picket line tomorrow to celebrate the May Day holiday initiated in 1976 by a Labour government in honour of the 'dignity of labour'.

They may, however, have more cause to be aware of the significance of Tuesday, the 15th anniversary of the general election that swept Mrs Thatcher to power on an anti-union ticket. Since then a series of employment Acts have progressively reduced the legal 'immunities' enjoyed by unions.

The Arrowsmith plant is in the working-class district of Bedminster, beside a busy dual carriageway amid a mishmash of nondescript housing, light engineering plants and a large bingo emporium.

Traditional picket-line paraphernalia has grown up outside the plant in the year since the dispute started. There is a brazier, a caravan and a line of police barriers.

Cries of 'Scab]' and 'Lowlife]' greet the staff who have taken the jobs of the sacked employees, many of whom worked for the company for more than 20 years.

About 30 of those who were dismissed have found permanent jobs elsewhere. But 80 or so are still on the picketing rota.

While the production workers were 'locked out', supervisors and office staff continued to work. In the early days of the dispute, overseers often walked out to the picket lines to talk to their erstwhile colleagues. 'We've got to keep working, otherwise the company will go under and there'll be no jobs for you to come back to,' was a familiar refrain.

More recently there has been less discourse as it became increasingly clear that an amicable settlement was unlikely.

It has seemed to the pickets that the company used the law to get rid of them on the cheap. By taking industrial action they broke their contracts and therefore have minimal rights.

The chairwoman of the family firm, Victoria Arrowsmith-Brown, sometimes comes out to close the gates at night, but refuses to acknowledge the presence of her former employees.

There is a small-town flavour to the dispute. Pickets are angry over the coverage of the dispute by the Bristol Evening Post. They claim that Miss Arrowsmith-Brown's shareholding in the newspaper group might have something to do with it. The later editions on Tuesday carried seven paragraphs on page six on what is one of the longest-running industrial disputes in the history of Bristol.

A Post employee who used to drop off free copies of the paper to the picket lines was sacked for doing so and only reinstated on the intervention of GPMU officials.

The union pointed out that the pickets were denied unemployment benefit for six months because the company refused to acknowledge officially that the employees had been dismissed. At the same time, the Department of Employment's Jobcentres were displaying advertisements for their jobs. Two civil servants were dismissed for refusing to process the adverts.

There is also suspicion about the speed with which police appear on the picket lines if there is an incident, however minor. It is alleged that 'Victoria', as Miss Arrowsmith- Brown is known, has contacts with senior police officers.

There is, however, another side to the story. The company argues that its former workers were well-paid, but that losses in excess of pounds 200,000 in 1992 meant it was forced to resist a pay claim of pounds 6.50 a week. There was no question of a premeditated attempt to get rid of the employees at a reduced cost; the company had suffered from their overtime ban and dismissed them for breach of contract after they voted for a strike. An offer to take the employees back under new conditions had been accepted by six.

Arrowsmith now plans to move to a smaller site and hopes to make a small profit this year.

One management source conceded that it was 'highly unpleasant' to be confronted by pickets every day. 'But it's only a few minutes a day, and while we would prefer it if they weren't there I'm sure they would prefer not to be there as well.' There was, though, no question of conceding on the principle of union recognition.

(Photograph omitted)