The Caterpillar Occupation: The Big Pink Tractor

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Caterpillar Workers 1987 © Bob Burrows

In 1987 workers in Uddingston, south east of Glasgow, occupied a factory owned by the US multi-national Caterpillar in protest at plans to close the plant (Woolfson and Foster 1988). The 103-day occupation was a high profile political event in Scotland and the workers were described by Campbell Christie, then General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), as having shown “an important lead for the Labour Movement in Britain”. John Brannan, one of the instigators of the occupation, recalled that it had “verified every belief that I had as a socialist and the ability of working class people, given the conditions, given the right tasks, they would amaze you” (Brannan 2015: 6).

Brannan’s amazement alludes to the ability of working class people – both the workers and their families and supporters – to organize themselves under significant emotional and financial stress. The image on the banner depicts a tractor made by the workers in defiance of both the owners and their management style, which the workers saw as inefficient and designed to debase the workforce. The tractor, which stood proudly in George Square in Glasgow city centre for a period during the occupation and acted as a money collection point in support of the occupying workers, symbolized their ability as an organized workforce “to carry on, without managers telling us every two minutes what to do and what not to do” (Brannan, 2014). Like the banners of the reform movement depicting the skill and capacities of the workers and publicising a particular period of struggle, approximately one hundred years later the Caterpillar workers' banner performed a similar role.

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Caterpillar workers Bob Burrows (standing), John Brannan (left) and John Gillan (right) at Banner Tales of Glasgow, Nitshill 15/03/2014. © Richard Leonard

Workplace occupations constitute a formidable challenge to the rights of capital. For example, a strike is predicated on the resumption of work after negotiations between the various sides conclude and throughout the period of negotiations the employer remains in control of the site (Gall 2010). An occupation presents a thornier predicament for the employers. An occupation effectively means workers have seized assets ‘lock, stock and barrel’. In a factory setting like the Caterpillar plant this would include stocks of goods already produced and ready for shipping; plant and machinery; and the land upon which the factory sits. Even in a relatively short space of time this can have significant financial implications for the employer. Machinery cannot be moved to be put into operation elsewhere and goods cannot be delivered to buyers. Gall (2010) argues that while workers control these assets they have significantly more political leverage than they would have in strike or picket conditions.

Occupations, while they can be effective, are difficult to organise and sustain. They are ‘24/7’ and as such require demanding levels of planning and organisation. Furthermore, the success of an occupation is in large part determined by the level of support the occupying workers have from relevant groups on the outside – e.g. the employer’s workers elsewhere, suppliers, the public, and unions. The role of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AEU) in the Caterpillar occupation is insightful in this respect. The union’s full support at the early stages of the occupation was significant as the majority of workers at the Caterpillar plant were members. As the occupation continued levels of public support increased. Woolfson and Foster (1988) estimate that public collections yielded approximately £100,000 per month. In addition the readiness of other workers to undertake a blacking of Caterpillar products further strengthened the resolve of the occupying workforce. The occupations success put the workers and their union on a collision course with the law as both occupation and blacking campaigns were illegal actions. John Brannan’s position was clear on this point: “We were outwith the rules; we were fighting a battle where the rules don’t count” (Brannan 2015: 7). This willingness to challenge the law was a step too far for the AEU who, Woolfson and Foster (1988: 277) argue, felt that a legal challenge would highlight its own internal divisions and “its active acquiescence” in the UK government’s ongoing neoliberalization of British industry.

Johnnie Crossan, University of Glasgow

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