Remembering the Timex factory dispute

SANDRA Walker never goes up the Timex Brae these days. It’s too painful for her.

SANDRA Walker never goes up the Timex Brae these days. It’s too painful for her.

She can take no pleasure in the long view over Dundee, over the mill stacks and high flats, to the hills of Fife. The bad memories pile up like storm clouds.

Timex Brae is the local name for the steep road leading from Camperdown Park up the hill on top of which sits a long, low building of light brown bricks. These days it’s a furniture firm. The Timex sign, written in proud, gleaming block capitals, has long ago been taken down from the facade. But it has not faded from folk’s minds. Here, 20 years ago this month, there began an intense dispute between workers and management which began in anger and hope on the picket line and ended – seven months later – in the closure of the factory and the loss of hundreds of jobs. It was, arguably, the last great strike, and the end of a particular sort of Scotland.

Walker was one of the sacked Timex workers. She spent plenty of freezing mornings on the brae, hurt and angry as strike-breakers passed through the picket line and factory gates, on their way to the assembly line where she had worked. She, like Dundee, has not forgotten the hot hatreds of those cold days.

“To this day,” she says, “there’s a couple of scabs, when I see them, I still spit on the ground. It’s stupid, eh? At almost 68 years old and I still feel like that. But I was bitter.”

Timex, an American business, came to Dundee in 1946, beginning with 11 employees in a converted farm building. At its peak, in the early 1970s, it was employing around 7,000 people – a huge number in a small city – and was an internationally famous brand. There was a time when every child’s first wristwatch was, most likely, a Timex.

Any firm which employs such a large proportion of the local workforce becomes more than just a source of income. Timex was part of the fabric of Dundee, employing generations of the same families. It was quite common for the husband to work as a toolmaker on the dayshift and, when he came home, for the wife to go out and work the backshift on the assembly line. There were, too, charities, sports teams and social clubs associated with the firm. When things began to go wrong, therefore, and when Timex in Dundee stopped making watches and started doing sub-contracting work for the electronics industry, it wasn’t just a question of redundancies, but rather the break-up of a community. That’s why it hurt and why it hurts still.

The strike began on January 29, 1993, in protest against 110 proposed lay-offs. Timex, led by Peter Hall, responded by sacking all strikers – some 343 people – and hiring new workers at lower wages. Quickly, the AEEU trade union organised a picket of the factory, which lasted until the August. Standing on Timex Brae now, on a sub-zero morning with snow on the hills, it is difficult to picture the combustive scene, even as the Reverend Erik Cramb, who was industrial chaplain at the time, points out where the strikers’ shelter stood and points up to the bare trees from which once hung the pinnies discarded by female workers in protest at their treatment.

“Every Monday morning, on this narrow pavement,” says Cramb, his breath clouding in the air, “people congregated at eight o’clock, in the dark, to greet the scabby buses.”

Cramb was there every Monday, when 1,000 or more protesters would assemble, but he also stopped by at quieter moments through the week, when there might be only a stalwart dozen, for tea and sympathy. “People would share their worries and hopes, their sense of betrayal on the one hand, but also their sense of solidarity with each other.”

This is how it went. Early in the morning, buses would climb the hill to the gates – the livery of the local bus company obscured with white paint - and strikers and supporters would batter and kick the sides, snarling, fingers jabbing, yelling, “Scab! Scab!” Inside, the strike-breakers, often young men glad to get off the dole, pulled up the hoods of their tops and jackets, or else lay down on the floor of the bus, eager to not be identified by the pickets or cameras. Still, word got around about who they were. How could it not in such a small place? There were incidents in which cars were vandalised outside houses. There was spitting in the streets. Strike-breakers were ostracised in pubs, forced to sit alone with their pint if they dared to enter at all.

Those outside the factory gates were not just sacked workers. They were joined by political activists from across Scotland and beyond, including the big beasts of the left, such as Tommy Sheridan, still in his folk-hero pomp ­after the poll tax protests. There is a ­famous photograph of the actor Tam Dean Burn, then better known as a Communist activist, clinging on to the windscreen wipers of one of the buses while police try to pull him away, an incident which saw him dubbed SpiderMan. He was convicted of breach of the peace and fined £250, one of 33 people who appeared in court after that day – May 17 – which was reported as experiencing the worst picket-line violence since the miner’s strike. Only four of those ­accused were from Dundee.

Opinion is divided on the role of ­political activists at Timex. Some feel that they hijacked the strike and created a feeling of aggressive hysteria; others argue that the support of the hard left was necessary in order to boost local morale and spread the message nationally. Mary McGregor, then Mary Ward, a teacher who had been the Labour leader of Dundee District Council, became a Communist during the period of the dispute. She was a member of the strike support group, raising money to help lessen the financial hardship of the sacked strikers.

“These people on the picket line weren’t hotheaded militants,” she says. “They were people who wanted to keep their jobs. Women were the core of the strike. They were there day and night. What was fascinating to watch was the politicisation of these women. Some of them maybe had never spoken in public before and were now speaking to meetings of hundreds if not thousands of people. They had a message and a story to tell. They were fearless and magnificent, which is well in the tradition of Dundee women.”

The workers of the Timex assembly line were almost all female. The city of Ma Broon has long been regarded as matriarchal. The jute industry, at one time, employed 34,000 people in Dundee, three-quarters of them women. The word “heckle” is thought to originate among female millworkers. In its original use, to heckle was to comb out fibres of flax; the hecklers of Dundee had a reputation as radical and outspoken members of the workforce. It may have been the granddaughters and great-granddaughters of those original hecklers, therefore, who were shouting “Scab!” on those cold mornings in 1993.

Sandra Walker, back then a mother in her mid-forties, an assembly line worker since the 1960s, was one of those who found the strike transforming. The women of Timex, she said at the time, had changed from lambs to lions. “There were women that were wee tiny creatures and all of a sudden they were unrecognisable,” she says now. “They were fighting for their livelihood. The majority were like me. We had worked there since we were young lassies.”

Many people, she says, agreed to the strike without expecting the situation to escalate as it did. On the night they all ­received letters telling them they were sacked, her phone never stopped ringing. It was frightened women. How were they going to feed their families? Walker stood on the picket line with the rest, unnerved by the violence, hoping she was wrong and they would be able to return to work. But in her heart she knew otherwise. She looks back on the period with a deep sadness. “Rather than people who had been friends for 20, 30 years at each other’s throats, I wish we could’ve gone out with a bit more dignity.”

Timex closed its doors for the last time on August 29, 1993. “Weekend shift working ended at 6pm this evening,” the statement ran, “and the plant will not reopen on Monday.” Thus came to an end almost half a century of history. Many of those involved in the strike struggled to find new employment. The strike was a stigma. Walker was unemployed for four years afterwards.

John Kydd, the shop stewards’ convener, who had joined Timex as an apprentice toolmaker at 16, was out of work for a decade and is now a lawyer in Dundee. For him, the closure of Timex was a victory of sorts. “That’s always been my analysis,” he says. “Anyone who says different is wrong. What would have been worse would have been to have a deunionised factory operating in Dundee.”

So does Kydd take a pride in what he did? “Yeah. I have no regrets. At all.”

The Timex story can be seen, in its way, as telling the story of industrial and post-industrial Scotland – a move from a massive workforce of skilled artisans to semi-skilled assembly-line work to nothing at all. It feels emblematic that the site of another old Timex factory, at Milton of Craigie, is now occupied by a huge Asda. Running parallel to this is the story of the trade unions. Timex feels, in hindsight, like a last hurrah of union power. There has not been, in the 20 years since, a single dispute on the same scale. Perhaps, though, we are now in an economic and political period – this age of austerity – when protest against injustice simply manifests itself in different ways.

George Mason thinks so. Mason, 68, was a laid-off striker who now works as a security officer at Dundee University. A few years ago he presented the university archives with his collection of memorabilia from the strike – badges, banners, press-cuttings, paintings and photographs. When the factory closed, when many felt distraught and disillusioned, Mason carefully placed all of this in boxes and put them up in his loft. Not out of sentiment or nostalgia. This is his gift to the future.

“I’ve always believed that what ­happened at Timex will inspire other generations at other times,” he says. For Mason, the inheritors of the trade union movement are activists groups, such as UK Uncut, which use social media and direct action to tackle government cuts. The spirit of Timex, in his view, is still ticking – only the mechanism has changed.

“They’ll never kill ideas,” he says, folding up an I Won’t Scab At Timex T-shirt. It is ready to go back in its box, for a ­little while longer at least.

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss