The Communist and the Lock-In

Alex Baird organised the industrial action that brought the workers of Wallacetown Engineering victory over General Electric in 1982. He tells Cailean Gallagher how the battle was won.

In 1982, hundreds of workers at Wallacetown Engineering in Ayr initiated a lock-in against the wishes of union officials when General Electric attempted to fire their branch convenor and dozens of other workers. The Wallacetown was Scotland’s leading producer of electronic equipment for mines, supplying switchboards and other kinds of spark-safe gear to corporations in Britain and across the world. A decade after the Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in and two years before the miners’ strike, the Wallacetown workers beat GE. Yet the story is hard to find in the annals of labour history.

“It shouldn’t be forgotten. Wallacetown was – where do you start?” Alex Baird, the branch convenor targeted by the American multinational, had never told the story of the strike until I and two others arrived in his living room to ask him about it. Alex had had a stroke a couple of years ago. “I hope my memory doesn’t scramble”, he told us. But he need not have worried: the story was crisp and clear.

Alex Baird (centre) on the picket at Wallacetown Engineering.

“I’m in the communist party,” he began, “and I’ve been since 1960. We shouldn’t forget these local struggles in the past. It’s how society’s developed, how human life’s developed.”

Alex Baird was born in Dalmellington, the son of a miner who ‘bowched the gaffer’ for favouring the men who bought him a pint on a Saturday night. That’s another story. But if Baird’s instinct for class struggle was sown by his father’s direct action, it was cultivated by his reading of Marx and Lenin as a youngster. In 1964 he was working hard for the local Labour MP, Emerys Hughes, but when the new Labour government immediately doubled MPs’ salaries yet delayed the promised old age pension raise by six months until after the winter, Baird confronted Hughes after a meeting in Dalmellington.

And he sits down to try and convince me, and he couldn’t. And he says: ‘You’re right, you’re right, you’re absolutely right. But, he says, remember this. The very, very worst Labour government will always be better than the best Tory government.’

And I said: ‘Emerys…’

So Alex joined the Communist Party and remains a member to this day. There were not many Party members in Ayr and no-one else in the Wallacetown was a Communist, but there were a lot of trade unionists, and they appreciated the gains in pay and conditions that Alex won in his time as convenor.

Who can say the extent to which Baird’s communism made him a target for the American bosses of General Electric after their takeover of Wallacetown Engineering in 1978? The bosses may equally have been irked by his active and obstinate engagement in the industrial affairs of the company. In any case, not many years after GE acquired the plant, workers were told that dozens of them would be made redundant; enough to get to Baird on the basis of a last-in, first-out redundancy policy. “The workers wouldn’t have it. They saw through the situation.” So began the three-month lock-in.

Alex Baird at his home in Ayr, under an icon of Robert Burns made at the Wallacetown Engineering factory.

If Alex’s communism was the first thing he described, the union’s position on the lock-in was the second. “Two and a half months on strike was a long hard time. And the union weren’t on our side.” The Amalgamated Engineering Union, Baird explained, “were in cahoots with General Electric.” They told GE about him, “and they would know of course I was a member of the Communist party.”

Part of what made the redundancies so unjustifiable was the size of the order-book. The high demand was common knowledge in the plant. With five and a half million pounds of open orders, nobody doubted that the redundancies were being made because of the strength of the union. “We had the best wages and conditions in engineering in the area. The place had to be clean and kept tidy and decent. Factories you tended to go in, you couldn’t walk on the floor for the filth and dirt. And I said, it’s going to be a clean factory, the benches are going to be kept, and there are going to be decent chairs and a decent canteen. And 90% of the people recognised that’s what it should be.” Alex believed the union should also have a say in the company’s industrial decisions. He wrote to the company listing the capacities that the company should develop, and the new technology it should bring into the factory. This approach did not accord with the style of GE, whose attitudes to unions had given rise to a massive strike in the US a little over a decade earlier. It paid the price for trying to remove him.

Well, we occupied the factory. Management didn’t get in. So we were in the factory every day, we had a committee set up in the factory, and we pledged there’d be no danger to machines, no physical [damage], nothing broken or destroyed.

A legal precedent for lock-ins had been set not long before by the workers at Plessey’s in Bathgate, who occupied their factory in December 1981. In setting up the systems for coordinating the action, Alex learned from aspects of the UCS work-in; but this was a different situation, since the unions that represented the clerical staff, foremen, and draftsmen refused to strike, making a work-in impossible. In fact the non-AEU staff set up an office in the hotel in town, until a coordinated boycott by locals and delivery workers presented such a threat to the hotel’s reputation that they told the company to leave. Meanwhile, a committee was set up, a rota was drawn up, and groups of workers stayed every day and night, playing football, reading books, preparing food. “[We] pledged there’d be no danger to machines, no physical [damage], nothing broken or destroyed.” The police came one evening and told Baird, “look, we’re not caring about your strike, we’re caring about management saying stuff’s getting vandalised.” “For vandalising,” he replied, “you can take me to court”. While workers guarded the plant, management attempted to damage it. One night they discovered a smashed window, and one of the young lads went to repair it. The workers never faced any legal challenges for the action.

Support came in from across Scotland and beyond. The radical engineering papers and the Daily Worker reported on the action. Branches of the NUM and other unions gathered contributions, which were carefully administered by an independent group set up by the lock-in committee. The AEU eventually agreed to pay strike money, but not until Alex made a trip to London and marched into the AEU offices to find the committee scattered to the wind. The STUC were “not bad”– in a letter after the victory, STUC General Secretary Jimmy Milne can hardly conceal his surprise at the outcome.

Even before the official recognition of the action on the part of the AEU, support for the strike among workers was never in doubt. There was 100% union density in the plant – a hard-earned achievement – and support for the strike was about 400 to 90. What opposition there was tended to come more from skilled men, some of whom held meetings and liaised with local press to divide the workers.

Alex hated the false division between skilled and so-called semi-skilled workers. “I wasn’t ‘skilled’. Semi-skilled were a lesser degree than skilled men” in the eyes of the likes of the tool-room shop steward, who opposed the strikes. Alex was equally angry about the unequal pay of men and women, and he remains crystal clear on why he challenged and somewhat corrected the unequal pay regime:

the women did the wiring, the lighter assembly, and the men did the heavier assembly. We had huge switches for down the pit as you can understand, and we had a welding shop, and a machine shop and everything. But the women did the lighter work, which was good – it was easiest for them to fiddle with – but they were getting less money than the men who were fiddling with bigger stuff, the switches. Aye, that’s how it was, some of the men could do the wee stuff too, but the difference of wages was stupid to me. It came to quite a few pounds a week. It wasn’t justified.

Baird’s analysis was grounded in what he regarded as the golden rule of profit-seeking capital:

You’ll find that companies try to get the most work out of employees for the least amount of money. And it’s not just the wages, it’s the conditions that cost them too. But if they’re not prepared to pay decent wages and so on, and have good conditions, they shouldn’t have a factory. Multinationals were always rotten that way, paying themselves plenty of money.

Here are the principles that drove Baird’s priorities as convenor, starting with the fact that capital will extract as much labour as it can, at the lowest cost possible, minimising not only wage costs but the costs of conditions. There is no essential difference between men’s and women’s work, or skilled and unskilled work; no reason the kinds of fiddling women do creates less value than men’s fiddling. This was not the orthodoxy among union officials, who often guarded skilled jobs at the expense of others.

In winning equal pay and better conditions, Baird was a shop-floor union leader acting on behalf of his workers, despite the positions of union officials and the labour aristocracy. In the end, the question of whether he was targeted for communism or trade unionism is a false dilemma. It boils down to the same thing. Alex believes it was his effectiveness as a union leader, based on his communism, that pushed GE to try and oust him. He was generating too many solutions to be acceptable, “because of too many ideas of the workers against the management, which I had gathered through my reading”.

Of course, the lock-in was the exception to the usual mode of engagement. In ordinary times, Alex pursued union involvement with the overall running of the factory rather than disruption. This was out of step with organising strategies in similar plants that promoted small actions by subsets of workers in response to issues specific to them. One- or two-week disputes by small clusters of workers were common – “and I thought, this is a silly way of going about a factory. You don’t ken whether you’ll get your pay or not”. Small-scale disruption could create division between workers that might even strengthen management, whereas stabilisation generated solidarity. Alex wanted stable union power.

Alex drew his tactics not from the approach of the union, but from the history of coal mining unions, that “instilled in me that workers had to organise themselves to beat the management and not just accept everything that the management said.” Even if things managers say make sense 40% of the time, that still means most of what they say is rubbish. Some were downright idiots, he said. One manager had passed his time during the lock-in watching through binoculars from his nearby garden. One day he came down and put a padlock on the gate, which Alex promptly had removed. He did it again, with a new padlock, which was also removed. Undeterred, the manager did it five times more, so that by the end of the strike Alex had a collection of seven padlocks. One day, the manager came into his office to ask for them to be returned. Alex said, “I’ll do you a deal. Bring me the key for three of them, and I’ll give you back four.” The manager stormed off in a rage, threatening to tell the senior managers. But the senior managers must have told him to pull himself together, because a day or two later he returned and, mumbling meekly, handed Alex three keys in exchange for four padlocks. It is a farcical scene, but it belies the influence, respect, and perhaps fear of the higher-ups. After the lock-in, the power of the union in Wallacetown grew and grew, but Alex Baird was stopped from progressing in the AEU or becoming an official. He remained at the plant for many years, running the union from his well-earned, spacious office, until the wider grinding down of the mining sector stemmed demand.

Despite its success, the lock-in is less well-known than many other strikes of this generation: not only UCS and the miners’ strike, but also Plessys, Loveable Bras, and the Caterpillar strike. Why has it been underappreciated by the movement? “I think because the hierarchy in the union were not for it, didn’t want these things, didn’t want disputes, it never got the recognition it was entitled to. There were plenty of regular strikes, for more money or minor changes in conditions, with varying degrees of success. But this one was about getting rid of the union convenor. And the sad thing is, the union knew, they weren’t caring, they wanted rid of me too.” A little later, he reiterated: “it was different from other disputes in Scotland. Because we were involved in disputes, normal disputes in things. This had been organised from America, well, with a view to take the union out.” Solidarity prevailed.

Cailean Gallagher is the editor of the Scottish Left Review.