Fighting Deindustrialisation: Scottish Women’s Factory Occupations, 1981-1982

Dr Andy Clark of Newcastle University introduces his latest book

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Andy Clark’s Fighting Industrialisation is available from the website of Liverpool University Press to Scottish Labour History readers  at a special discount of 35%: quote code SLHS35

The fight led by women workers against factory closures in early 1980s Scotland has been largely ignored in both popular and academic history, argues Andy Clark. His new book aims to bring their story in from the margins and restore the gender balance in accounts of the fight against deindustrialisation.

Popular accounts of industrial closure and working class resistance in the 1980s overwhelmingly focus on the displaced male worker.   Miners, shipbuilders, metalworkers, autoworkers – these are the people that we associate with the battles fought to defend industry in the later twentieth century.

However, in 1981 and 1982, three mostly-female workforces across central Scotland refused to accept the closure of their factories and the resulting hardships of unemployment.   During the accelerated deindustrialisation of Scotland’s economy, and skyrocketing unemployment across Britain, the workers at Lee Jeans (Greenock), Lovable Bra (Cumbernauld) and Plessey Capacitators (Bathgate) defied the demands of their multinational employers.   Rather than accepting the flimsy arguments used to justify capital mobility, the workers barricaded themselves inside the factories and refused to leave until their demands were met.   And at each site they were – to varying degrees – successful: the factories remained open in some capacity because of the workers’ actions.

In this book, I argue that this is one of the most significant periods in the history of deindustrialisation and working class resistance to shutdown.   However, despite their contemporary prominence, the actions of these women have been neglected in popular and academic representation of the period.   In Fighting Deindustrialisation, the comparative and collective significance of the factory occupations of 1981-1982 is detailed and explained for the first time.

The book has two primary objectives: first, to recount and detail the actions of the workers, reconstructing the occupations as they developed, the reasons for mobilisation, and the day-to-day dynamics of occupying a factory; and secondly, to insert these disputes – individually and collectively – into the historiography of the period, and contribute to academic literatures in history, industrial relations, deindustrialisation studies, and oral history.

To achieve the first aim, extensive archive work was conducted over six years, and oral history interviews were recorded with the workers involved and external supporters.   Following a discussion of relevant literatures in Part I, the three case study chapters in Part II outline and assess the workplaces, the workgroups, and the disputes as they developed.   Each chapter locates the plants in their local socio-economic contexts, before deploying oral histories narratives to reconstruct the sites.

Following this discussion, these chapters then focus on the disputes, illustrating the nature of the closure announcements, the different responses of the workers, the origins of occupation, support from the labour movement, and the dynamics of action at each site.   The oral history narratives provide a richness in explaining the occupations, in reconstructing the day-to-day lives of the occupiers, and understanding the development of mobilisation.   Through these detailed discussions, the militant occupations led by Scottish women workers during the first Thatcher government are finally outlined in print.

Following these chapters, Part III deploys the research to contribute to a number of scholarly themes and literatures.   Firstly, I engage with debates surrounding worker mobilisation.   Many industrial relations scholars assert that, for a workplace to identify as a collective, there must be an identifiable spark of injustice.   The evidence presented here challenges that assumption, and I argue that the process of building solidarity is constantly in development through the construction of at-work relationships and sociabilities.   Secondly, I challenge the notion that broader socio-economic forces have minimal impact on the process of  mobilisation, demonstrating that the deindustrialisation of Scotland’s economy was central at the time of the occupations, and remains prominent in the narratives of respondents.

Another key argument, developed in Chapter 10, is that memories of deindustrialisation and working-class activism are fundamentally gendered, and this has significant impacts on how women workers reflect on their experiences.   The popular memory of Britain in the 1980s is dominated by the image of the male worker, and this has been reinforced through TV, film, political discourse, and public artworks.   By analysing the oral history interviews, I identify a number of areas where this masculine popular memory has directly impacted on the women workers interviewed.   Firstly, there has been a significant degree of self-marginalisation among those who occupied the plants.   Many actively downplayed the importance of their involvement in the disputes, leading to some declining to participate in an interview, or using the interview relationship to stress their insignificance.

A further – and crucial impact of the popular on individual memory is that none of the workers interviewed remember the concomitant occupations that took place.   As I examine in depth, in 1982, these disputes were evidently connected and were reported through the language of precedence: by 2014-16, these connections no longer exist in the memory of the workers, and I argue that this forgetting is a direct outcome of a public memory that stresses the importance of industrial contraction on men, and celebrates male trade union leaders.   The activim of women workers and trade unionists has largely been forgotten, including by those involved.   In the concluding chapter, I argue that if there had been three similar disputes launched by male workers in Scotland’s traditional industries, with similar outcomes as those at Lee, Lovable and Plessey, they would be widely commemorated and celebrated events, and would be central in the popular narrative of Scotland’s experience of industrial contraction.

The result of this marginalisation is that the memory of the disputes, and of women’s experience of industrial closure, is precarious.   I hope that by publishing Fighting Deindustrialisation I can contribute to a reassessment of the period that incorporates the experience of all sections of the working class who lived through – and continue to live through – this era of acute social change.

Despite the importance of the topic, the book incorporates the humour of the respondents, whose reflections were threaded with anecdotes, funny stories, and hilarious narratives.   I hope that I have done them justice in the text, and that readers get a sense of Scottish working class humour, which is often more pertinent when discussing periods of hardship and struggle.

Andy Clark is Research Associate in oral history with the Newcastle Oral History Collective at the University of Newcastle.   This article was first posted by the newsletter of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 15 September 2022.

Fighting Deindustrialisation: Scottish Women’s Factory Occupations, 1981-1982 is published by Liverpool University Press (Studies in Labour History, 19): 264 pp., £95 h/b/£24.99 p/b, ISBN 9781802077117/9781802077124

Andy Clark’s Fighting Industrialisation is available from the website of Liverpool University Press to Scottish Labour History readers  at a special discount of 35%: quote code SLHS35.