Macho management is back with a vengeance

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The Independent Online
ON A February morning in Dundee the 340 workers of the Timex electronics factory assembled outside the gate. They repeated their decision to return to work after a two-week strike. But security guards then bolted and padlocked the gate, and a company executive announced through the bars that there was no work for any of those queuing in the roadway. The police moved across to cordon off the gate. Two days later, the entire workforce was dismissed.

The lock-out, that mammoth from the tundra of Victorian labour relations, is back and thriving in Britain. The Wapping dispute of 1986, when Rupert Murdoch locked out and dismissed his printing workers was the most famous example. Timex, which has now become the most inflamed and obstinate industrial battle in Britain, is only the latest.

Around the Timex gate, the pickets camp by their brazier. Every morning they are reinforced by 100 or so men and women to wait for the grey double- decker buses bringing in the small 'replacement' workforce which Timex has managed to collect from Tayside's pool of unemployed. They cover their heads with coats and newspapers and cower as the buses lurch through the roars of 'scab' past the gate.

A big strike usually sparkles with high spirits. But at Timex everybody is humiliated. The sacked staff are holding solid, but they long to work rather than to stand in the rain. The 'scabs' are desperate and ashamed, but the gleam of a job is too much for them. The pickets lay all the blame on one man: Peter Hall, owner of two bankrupted companies in the South of England, who was brought to Dundee by the American board of Timex in 1991 as chief executive. One woman who has worked for more than 20 years at Timex asked me: 'What's this man doing tae human beings, taking them doon tae nothing?' She meant the scabs as well.

There have always been four ways in which employers and workers do battle. There is the strike in which workers withdraw labour and stay away, and the rarer 'Polish' strike in which they occupy the workplace - sometimes, as with the Upper Clyde shipbuilders 20 years ago, carrying on production. There used to be the 'lock-in' now unknown even in primitive police states, where feudal masters used force to impose factory discipline. Finally, there is the lock-out. Once this meant halting production until the workers accepted new conditions. Now, in Britain, it means using the new laws which limit trade union action to replace the workforce by another, more submissive one.

The sinister and yet fascinating point about Timex is that the workers were neither 'difficult' nor 'militant'. They were highly organised, most of them in the AEEU engineers' and electricians' union. But the AEEU has for many years stood for the sort of 'moderate and enlightened' unionism which sought a German-style partnership with management - to the disgust of more left-wing unions. In 1990, the union struck a deal at Timex in which they accepted profit-sharing, a worker sitting on the board and company shares for the staff in return for more flexible working practices. Timex, an American watch-making multinational, now owned by the Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen, had been in Dundee for more than 30 years and was a decent, popular employer.

This pretty model of 'progressive' labour relations took only a few weeks to wreck. Peter Hall, at the turn of this year, announced that half the staff would be laid off for the first six months of 1993 because of falling demand (Timex at Dundee now makes circuit boards for computer units). The union asked, reasonably, for job rotation instead, to spread the burden. When Hall went ahead and fired 120 people, the AEEU went scrupulously through the new dispute procedures: a strike ballot was supported by 92 per cent of the staff, and a strike began.

What followed was provocation. Negotiations had begun and a compromise had been sketched out when, suddenly, Timex imposed a list of new conditions, including a wage freeze and a cut in pension benefits. When the staff refused to accept the list, they were locked out and then dismissed.

Somewhere there must be a manual for the new, macho employer which prescribes: 'First - get them to strike. Second - make signals of readiness to come halfway and start negotiations. Third - hit them fast and hard with tougher terms they can't accept. Fourth - as they reel back in outrage, sack them.'

The next move - at Timex as at Wapping - is to use the so-called '90- day rule'. If the employer can keep the lock-out and collective dismissals going for 90 days, he can then offer jobs selectively to individuals from the old workforce without having to pay the rest for unfair dismissal. In Dundee this date will be reached in a week's time, on 17 May. The pickets and the union are unanimous that nobody will accept work on those terms, and they intend to escalate the dispute by preventing the buses from entering the Timex factory.

Outside the Timex gate, one of the homemade posters declares: 'This Whole Episode Stinks of Thatcherism'. The new code of aggressive management seeks to break the cohesion of a workforce, to end recognition of trade unions in the workplace (as Mr Hall incautiously admitted) and to install atomised individuals employed on the company's terms. But the new code goes much further than an attack on old-fashioned trade union values. It is an onslaught on the concept of 'partnership' between labour and employer - the basis of industrial relations law in the European Community.

In Germany, what Timex has done would be illegal. An official from the German trade union congress was amazed when I described the Dundee events. Lock-outs are restricted in Germany: to shut the gates on a workforce which wants to end a strike is 'aggressive lock-out', and Mr Hall's equivalent in Hamburg would be compelled in court to pay full wages to all the workers whose jobs he has withdrawn.

There have been violent struggles at demonstrations outside Timex and it has been easy to present the dispute as a return of Scargillian militancy. But the genuine extremism lies in the management's strategy. Mr Hall and his colleagues are not trying to break down the old 'Them and Us' divisions, but to restore them - with 'Us' unchallengeably supreme.

Timex at Dundee is only a small plant. But its crisis shows all too clearly how superficial John Major's 'national reconciliation' remains. Down at the workplace, Thatcherism is still rolling forward and demolishing what is left of 'social democratic consensus'. The 90- day rule is an open invitation to employers to settle disputes by force rather than round a table, and yet another 'trade union reform bill' is on the way.

At the top of the ridge where the Timex factory stands, you can see the estuary of the Tay and the North Sea beyond. Across there is a continent which we are supposed to be approaching. Across there they believe that society must restrain both employer and employee and protect their rights as citizens. But this island, where laws are still framed to strengthen the hand of the few against the many, seems to be drifting further out to sea.