Tag: Labour History

The Caterpillar Occupation: The Big Pink Tractor

Caterpillar2 copy

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

The Glasgow Shipwrights Society 1884 3rd Reform Act Banner


© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

This banner measures 1803mm x 2692mm. William Gladstone stands on the right of Justice, who holds the House of Lords and the Franchise Bill on scales, and to her left stands a small Punch like figure urging “Billy” to “pass the bill”. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods Punch and Judy shows could be seen in all major towns and cities. The storyline for these shows extended well beyond the nowadays more recognised story of infanticide, violence against women and murder to encompass, in a satirical manner, the topical political stories of the day. In this context Punch would have been a celebrity figure famous for mocking figures of establishment. Master Puppeteer and founder of ‘The Punch and Judy Fellowship’ Glyn Edwards describes punch as ‘the lord of misrule’.

Very much an object of public and political performance the Shipwrights’ banner, like many other craft and trade banners of the popular reform movement, appeals to our sense of socio-political drama. The wider material culture of the popular reform movement (i.e. posters, pamphlets etc) and its radical processions “served to visualise and thus realise the dignity, skill and respectability of labouring men, and, by extension, their fitness for the franchise” (Nixon et al 2012).

Scottish reformers throughout the reform politics of 19th Century Britain could often be seen at galas and political processions holding aloft banners and fasces with the motto “Unity is Strength” or slogans of similar sentiment (Pentland 2005). Unity here often referring to British national unity. Pentland (2005) argues that by presenting themselves as a British movement the reformers pitted their democratic ‘crusade’ against the plotting and intrigues of a narrow faction of parliamentary elites. Text along the bottom of the Glasgow Shipwrights’ Society banner reads “United together in freedoms great cause we are determined and must have equal rights and equal laws”. Pentland points out that while the 1707 Acts of Union had given Scotland “access to expanded commercial horizons … her political system had been untouched by English freedoms” (ibid: 1003). With this thought in mind notions of unity and equality expressed in the banner speak to an emerging class politics but also a wish to nullify the still potent residues of feudalism in Scotland by accessing English liberties.


Richard Leonard (2015), Political Education Officer for the GMB tells us about the lineage of the Shipwrights Society. "The Shipwrights [...] represented [...] a constituent part of the GMB. But its lineage goes back to the early part of the 19th century. The Shipwrights’ Societies were established in most of the major shipbuilding areas. The Mersey, the Tyne and the Clyde were principally the areas where the Shipwrights organised. They were largely founded on artisanship and kinship.

There was then, as there can be now, a certain aristocracy of the working class and the Shipwrights saw themselves fairly near the apex of that aristocracy at that time. During the course of the 19th century the Shipwrights, who were principally carpenters and woodworkers and were therefore responsible for making ships of wood and masts and sails, saw those skills diminish with the advent of steam powered boats made of iron and steel. So there were a series of demarcation disputes in the shipyards, especially with the Boilermakers’ Society – which was in the ascendancy – in those jobs associated with the Shipwrights.

Partly in response to that and partly in response to changing trading conditions the Shipwrights tried to build an amalgamated union. But it wasn’t until 1882 that they finally moved from a series of local societies to having a national trade union structure. Even then it was quite loose compared to some of the other unions. This union of Shipwrights, which was known as the ‘Association of Shipwrights’ was founded in 1882. [T]his banner is from 1884, so the national union is just two years old when this banner is commissioned and displayed.

The national union was set up with eleven societies, eight of which were from Scotland, three were from the Tyne. Eventually they joined with the Boilermakers and in 1963 the Blacksmiths also joined and it became one trade union. In 1982 exactly 100 years after the birth of a national union for Shipwrights this union joined with the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) to form the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union (GMBATU)."