Scab] Scab] the pickets scream: The era of bitter disputes is back. Outside the high metal fence at Timex's

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MEETING Peter Hall, boss of Timex Electronics in Dundee, is not unlike an encounter with a caged hamster. He is small (about 5ft 5in), with puffy cheeks and quick, darting eyes. Outside the bars of his 'cage' - a high metal fence surrounds the factory - angry pickets stamp and shout. When I toss Mr Hall a tricky question, he nibbles tentatively at it, tucks it into his capacious cheeks, chews silently, then says: 'No comment.'

He is at the centre of a dispute of a kind that may soon become common. Firing unionised workforces and replacing them with subdued, unorganised recruits has become a tempting option for managements. Timex, an American corporation, seized it last month, getting rid of 340 established workers, mostly women, and hiring 200 (only half of them female) from Dundee's 10 per cent unemployed.

The sack-and-recruit move came after a visit by two Timex vice-presidents from Connecticut headquarters. It has been followed by skirmishes between pickets and police reminiscent of Wapping in 1986. In one confrontation, a police officer slapped a woman picket. A large man then punched him full in the face, declaring: 'You know what that's for, and I know what that's for, so let's leave it there - OK?' 'OK,' the chastened officer mumbled. There may be a repeat of those scenes tomorrow; Scottish Militant Labour plans to bus in supporters to swell the pickets.

Every morning, double-decker buses, their livery hidden under grey paint, arrive at the factory. The passengers hide behind newspapers and scarves, and hunch their shoulders against the abuse from those whose jobs they have taken. 'Scab] Scab] Scab]' the pickets shout. 'Some of the things that are happening are very unpleasant indeed,' Mr Hall says.

On the shopfloor, men and women, many never having worked before, a few barely out of their teens, assemble timing devices for domestic cookers and electronic circuit-boards for more sophisticated appliances beneath signs that warn: 'When Goods Are Returned Question Our Quality.'

Are the new recruits producing much for the reject bins? 'No, not at all,' says Mr Hall. 'We got them up and started very quickly. Training for some jobs only takes a morning. There is enthusiasm, willingness and flexibility. We had a lot of applications, so we were able to select the very best team.'

Why had Mr Hall, a 41-year-old Englishman, been chosen 20 months ago to manage this Scottish plant? 'Because of my experience of the industry,' he says, 'and the company's determination to grow the business after a long history of loss-making.'

Dundee can be contrary, not always operating in its own interests. Once the capital of the Scots' kingdom, much of it now is given over to faintly Stalinesque public buildings, high-rise flats and grey housing estates. A hard-drinking city, it elected (in 1922) Britain's first Prohibition Party MP. Having grown rich as the centre of the world's jute-mill industry, it acquiesced in the gradual transferral of 'Juteopolis' from the River Tay to the River Hoogly in Calcutta (though some jute is still produced in Dundee). Fiercely socialist, it is the home of the famously non-union publishing company, D C Thomson.

To the women at Timex, Mr Hall at first seemed rather charming, with his blow-dried hair, quick eyes and pep talks in the canteen. 'On Valentine's Day last year, he handed out sweeties to the women,' says one on the picket line. A year later, he handed out dismissal notices.

The local branch of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union is putting a belligerent face on it. 'The company will either have to take us all back or close the plant down for good,' says John Kydd, a senior shop steward. Jimmy Airlie, the union's Scottish executive officer, insists: 'We cannot allow any company to behave in (that) way and get away with it.' However, there seems little the union can do to reverse the Timex clock. George Mason, a union stalwart, 20 years with the company, concedes: 'The union's back is up against the wall - maybe through the wall.'

In the Sixties, Timex employed 5,500 Dundonians. But, as with jute, cheap foreign labour lured much of the work to Asia - watch manufacture going to the Philippines. A downtown plant was closed. The remaining suburban one cut its payroll long before the recession bit hard. (In 1983, workers barricaded themselves in the factory for six weeks to oppose nearly 2,000 redundancies.) Mr Hall says he told the previous workforce that to get through a difficult first half of 1993 into what promised to be a more buoyant second half there would have to be temporary lay-offs.

The response was a strike. Two weeks later, the American vice- presidents arrived. A four-point 'peace plan', including a wage- freeze and a 10 per cent cut in fringe benefits, was presented to the workers. It was rejected. Although the workers agreed to return to work 'under protest', the company, Mr Hall says, 'concluded we had to act quickly, and dismissed the workforce'.

The men and women on the picket line believe they fell for a deliberate ploy to replace them. Mr Hall denies this: 'If we had wanted to sack them all along, we wouldn't have spent many weeks trying to get an agreement.' Timex recently spent pounds 2m on the latest equipment, including a pounds 1m Japanese automatic circuit-board maker which requires little labour. More are on the way.

There is despair as well as determination on the faces of the shouting, fist-waving pickets. The view from Mr Hall's 'cage' is certainly intimidating, but he may have convinced himself that those fists are waving goodbye.

(Photograph omitted)