Scotland

Lee Jeans women remember seven-month sit-in success

  • 4 February 2011
  • From the section Scotland

Workers at a Greenock textile factory have celebrated the 30th anniversary of what is regarded as a highly significant chapter in Scottish labour history.

The mainly female workforce barricaded themselves into the Lee Jeans plant, beginning a sit-in which lasted seven months.

I reported on the women's action, which won support from across the trades union movement, and three decades later I returned to Greenock to meet some of those who had played a key role.

The 240-strong workforce at the factory, owned by the American VF Corporation, knew something was afoot when shop stewards went into a meeting with managers on 5 February 1981.

Their order book was fairly healthy, but special jobs had recently been rushed through amid rumours the factory was to be closed and its machinery shipped off to Newtonards in Northern Ireland, where government grants were available.

Image caption Helen Monaghan (centre) with former machinists Margaret Wallace (left) and Catherine Robertson

Told that closure had been agreed, the shop stewards' convener, Helen Monaghan, went through to the factory floor and ordered a pre-arranged plan of action to be put into place.

Immediately plastic chairs from the canteen were piled up against the factory door, preventing managers from gaining access.

Mrs Monaghan, now 74, told me the workers were very angry after the offers they had made to management to help safeguard their jobs.

"They were very determined," she said outside the factory, now closed and transformed into a series of small industrial units.

"We offered a three-day week or job sharing, just so that the work would stay in Greenock."

Margaret Wallace, then a 20-year-old machinist recalls the day the action began: "There was a build up to it.

"We had an idea something was going to happen, but I don't think we expected what was to come," she said.

"We were excited; it was just like a mission, and we just went along with it."

Catherine Robertson, just 19 during the occupation, said: "It was very daunting. Just being so young and something like that happening."

"You didn't know things like this would happen; you didn't know it was going to be so big."

Fish suppers

By the evening of the first day, they realised they were not as well-prepared as they had thought: they had had nothing to eat for 12 hours.

Margaret Wallace and a male colleague went onto the roof through a skylight and shinned down a drainpipe to go for fish and chips.

When they returned with 240 fish suppers, police stopped them, but when they explained they were carrying out an occupation, the officers allowed them through.

It was the last time they were unprepared.

For seven months the women organised themselves into shifts to keep the occupation going.

Image caption The Lee Jeans factory in Greenock was threatened with closure

Margaret and Catherine travelled the country, speaking to trades union groups and raising money for the sit-in.

I recall a standing ovation the women received at the Scottish TUC in Rothesay.

Giants of the Labour movement addressed the women in meetings at the factory; the Labour Party leader, Michael Foot praised their courage, telling them to keep their heads high.

Thirty years later, the occupation is still regarded as a highly significant chapter in Scottish labour history.

Elsewhere in Scotland the national steelworkers strike had recently been defeated, and the traditionally militant Chrysler car factory at Linwood in Renfrewshire was closed without a fight from its unions.

But in August 1981, after almost seven months, a management buy-out saved the Lee Jeans factory - and the 140 workers still occupying it won back their jobs.

Today Helen Monaghan is proud of the way the action was carried out.

Machines were regularly oiled and maintained and the £1m worth of jeans in the factory were secured.

Visitors and occupiers were searched as they left, to ensure there were no thefts of the company's property.

But she denies the women were militant. "We were determined," she insists.

"It wasn't easy, but it had to be done. We started it, and we were very determined we would be there until we heard something different."

Margaret Wallace says other women facing problems with their management should take heart from their action.

"You can win," she said. "Stick to your guns and don't be scared of the management."

Sadly the victory was not long-lived, as the factory under its new management called in the receivers in June 1983.