Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

News And Other Busyness

Rat In The Kitchen

Striking workers at the Magnet factory in Darlington have finally been offered a settlement. It is, however, more of an insult than compensation. Andy Johnson reports.

Squall 16, Summer 1998, pg. 15.

SHIRLEY WINTER goes down a storm at benefit gigs up and down the country. With the righteous anger of a woman denied simple justice the loudest cheer of the night is always hers.

For her, she says, it's easy to keep morale up. But it's not so easy for the men she represents. Six hour shifts on a lonely picket line, harassed by the police, ignored or firebombed, trying to survive on £35 strike pay a week, for 21 months, takes its toll.

Such a toll would be a good enough reason for voting to end the strike for a meagre £8,500 pay off.

But good enough as the reason was, the vote, in late April, was decided by only 82 of the 320 strikers. Of those some had never seen the picket line. The decision to settle was won by a majority of just seven votes - sending some men home with only £250 compensation for a life-time's work.

It is an irony of the age that during last year's general election it was the Labour candidate who avoided the picket line. Alan Milburn, MP for Darlington and now a health minister, said it would be a 'symbolic, futile gesture'. The Tory candidate, Peter Scrope, trying his luck in a Labour fortress in a country about to rout his party, took his photo opportunity.

It is men like the Magnet workers who literally keep the Labour party in power. Not only Milburn, but Tony Blair, with his impeccable middle class credentials; and New Labour architect Peter Mandelson, all rely on the solid working class support of the North East for their parliamentary seats. All have sacked workers in their constituencies, as does Tory leader William Hague.

Shirley Winter used to support Tony Blair. Defend him against anything, she says. But that changed when he failed to answer her letters in opposition and refused her plea for two minutes of his time during a visit to Darlington after the election.

"How dare you," said Milburn, "lobby the Prime Minister when I invite him to my constituency."

Magnet Kitchens went bust in 1993. A year later a company called Beresford bought it. Its first move was to 'de-skill' the workforce.

Wages went down by between £25 and £54 a week. The men were also threatened with the loss of a paid tea break, pension scheme and guaranteed working week. (All have since gone).The men agreed to a pay freeze, lasting for eleven years or until the company went into profit.

"In the first year the company made two and a half million pounds," Shirley Winter told Squall. "They didn't ask for a pay rise. The second year it made £4 million. They didn't go back for a pay rise. In the third year, 1995-6, it made £10.5 million profit."

Pay negotiations followed. Sixty per cent of the workforce were given a three per cent rise; the remainder wouldn't get anything unless they improved productivity.

Shirley says this set man against man. "Two machinists, doing the same job, but had a different deal." Indignities followed.

"They replaced the foremen, who'd worked their way up, with time and motion people. One woman started taking photographs of people if they stopped by their machines. She said she was going to stick them on the walls to 'shame' people. They timed them when they went to the toilet."

Bereavement leave was reduced. Sick leave would be at company discretion. One man was phoned four times, on the hour, to make sure he was still at home. Workloads went up. In the loading bay the number of items to be loaded up, heavy things such as washing machines, went up from 350 to 600.

"My husband used to go into work even if he had the flu. It got to the point where my husband and others couldn't bear the thought of going into work any longer," says Shirley.

A strike ballot, following all of "Margaret Thatcher's trade union laws" followed. The men went out on August 22nd, 1996.

One week later, on a Saturday, a letter was delivered by taxi to each of them. It gave them a choice. Go back to work and sign away any future right to industrial action, or be sacked. Answers, please, by Tuesday.

The men were locked out and their jobs advertised the same day in the job centre.

For the first few months they were denied benefits. The Benefits Agency didn't know the rules as they had never dealt with an official dispute.

They survived with the help of the mining community sending food parcels; money raised by a factory in Gateshead and £35 a week strike pay.

Some couldn't survive and took part-time work to make ends meet. These were officially tallied as no longer on strike, and denied later voting rights, even though they remained on the picket line.

There they would be arrested for stepping off the pavement. They were photographed, videoed and intimidated by private detectives. Two supportive nurses were arrested for throwing paper cups at 'scab' vans. Men were beaten up. A petrol canister was thrown into a gas lit hut. The culprit was charged with affray.

Darlington Football Club finished bottom of the third division. When one of the men used the word 'fuck' to describe their plight he was bound over to keep the peace.

At the end of January, Magnet offered £1,000 per sacked worker to settle the dispute. This was later doubled to £2,000.

Finally the settlement fund was raised to £850,000 - unevenly distributed between the workers.

The rigged vote further divided the community. Already split between strikers and 'scabs', it is now split between striker and striker. Of the 320 men, only 82 were judged to be still officially on strike and allowed to vote.

During the dispute the company directors awarded themselves bonuses and increases amounting to over £2 million.

"The new managing director had been there for 42 days when he sacked people with 42 years experience," Shirley Winter says. "They've totally destroyed our community - all in the name of corporate greed."

The Magnet Women’s Support Group is continuing to fight for trade union rights.
Contact Shirley Winter, Secretary, Magnet Women’s Support Group, 14 Longfield Road, Darlington, Co. Durham, DL3 0EW. Tel: 01325 350694.