Timex turns the clock back in Scotland: Aggressive company management and wage cuts will benefit no one, argues Martin Whitfield

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The Independent Online
PAY CUTS will never be popular. Offer a 27 per cent pay reduction in the wake of a four-month lockout and the response is likely to be exactly that of the 340 sacked Timex workers at Dundee yesterday: no deal. The rejection is not the surprise, but the confidence of a management that believes it can get away with reducing wages already not much more than pounds 100 a week.

The management's tactics have come as a shock, not just to the jeering pickets assembling outide the low brick factory every Monday morning, but to all Scottish trade unionists and a broad cross-section of the public. What was a tranquil industrial equilibrium north of the border has been violently disturbed by a dispute full of unpleasant imagery, from mass arrests to allegations of bullying management and third- world labour conditions.

The Timex workers, mainly women, went on strike after 92 per cent voted for a stoppage over 120 compulsory job losses. The company claims that without cutting costs the Dundee factory would have had to close. The strikers were then locked out and alternative workers recruited, in spite of the strikers having agreed to return and, 'under protest', accept a pay freeze and an erosion of working conditions.

The lock-out at Timex, now an assembly plant of electronic circuit boards, has been compared with two similar showdowns in the Seventies and Eighties, Grunwick and Wapping. In both cases, members of the workforce were sacked after going on strike, each saw picket-line excesses, attracted the support of left-wing fringe groups and ended in defeat for the workers. But there is one big difference in Dundee. Unlike Grunwick and Wapping, few are willing to defend the actions of a company that is portrayed as treating loyal and low-paid workers - some with 20 and 30 years' service - in a brutal manner.

Although owned by Fred Olsen, a Norwegian entrepreneur, Timex is run from Connecticut, and the spectre of callous American management practice sends a shiver down the spine of many trade unionists. The company's management, led by Peter Hall, chief executive and former owner of two bankrupt businesses in Surrey, has had few supporters for its policies of redundancies, wage cuts and worse conditions. Like Derek Hatton in Militant-dominated Liverpool, Timex discovered that delivering redundancy notices by taxi is not good public relations. It is seen to have put the boot in when the victim was on the ground.

On the other hand, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, whose members are involved, has successfully come across as moderate, concerned and reasonable. At the beginning of the dispute it sensibly offered alternate weekly lay-offs so that workers were not thrown on the dole in a town where the unemployment rate is more than 10 per cent.

It has acted in strict accordance with the law at all stages. Even the antics of militant pickets, often from England, have not managed to sully its reputation.

Jimmy Airlie, the AEEU national officer who outlined the company's proposals to the workforce yesterday, has rammed home a consistent message after 14 years of industrial relations reform: 'Nowhere else in Europe are decent women and men sacked for taking legitimate and legal industrial action.'

Mr Airlie's description of conditions at Timex as 'third-world labour' has a powerful effect at a time when Britain is holding firm against the European Social Chapter and blocking any additional restrictions on the power of employers. It is a particularly embarrassing image for the Scottish Office and members of the 'Locate in Scotland' campaign, who are keen to promote the existence of a high-skill, high-productivity workforce familiar with high technology to attract investment.

'Cheap labour for sale, name your price' is hardly the message the PR officials want to be seen promoting, although it is almost certainly one reason why Scotland's 'Silicon Glen' has had success in attracting electronics companies, many of which are strongly anti-union.

Henry McLevy, Scottish regional officer for the AEEU, says low wages in electronics factories have had a depressing effect: 'It does not do Scotland any good. The dispute gives a poor opinion of industrial relations and does not help attract investment.'

Leaders of the Scottish TUC fear that other employers might follow the example of Timex management. Already, two other companies have used dismissal as the first response to a strike by their labour forces. It is a world away from the advent of the 'sunrise' electronics industries in the mid-Eighties, which were heralded as a source of secure 'hi-tech' jobs and emblematic of a much-needed manufacturing renaissance. Competition to pay the lowest wages in low-skill assembly plants was not what was supposed to be on offer.

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