Morris Furniture dispute was one of city's most bitter

PRODUCTION staff at a furniture factory in Glasgow paid a hefty price when they opted to work fewer hours in line with a national agreement ...

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The Morris Furniture strike made headline news 30 years ago
The Morris Furniture strike made headline news 30 years ago

they were sacked.

Millionaire boss Robert Morris not only dismissed 29 of his workers but he also sacked another six when they refused to cross picket lines at the Cowcaddens site. As former workers get together GORDON THOMSON looks back at the two years that changed many lives.

IT was nearly 30 years ago that changes at one of Britain's largest furniture factories transformed the lives of its workers.

For two years the dispute at Morris Furniture was played out on the city's streets and today an appeal went out to the former strikers to get in touch with organisers who are set to hold a memorial next week at the Glasgow Museum Resource Centre.

The strike made headline news across Britain with politicians and fellow trade unionists backing the workers who defied Robert Morris, the managing director of Morris Furniture, whose grandfather had founded the firm in 1884.

Based in Milton Street, it made cabinets for ships built at yards on the Clyde, including the luxury passenger liners of Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth.

During the Second World War it diversified, making Wurlitzer jukeboxes, seats for the old ABC cinema chain and stocks for Lee Enfield rifles.

Diversification and qualify craftsmanship forged the reputation of the Glasgow company, which produced a lavish bedroom suite for the Queen and Prince Philip.

Robert Morris is today the head of one of Britain's largest and most successful furniture manufacturers, which supplies a network of more than 2000 retailers.

He took charge in 1984 at a time when financial difficulties dogged the firm.

The workforce had agreed two years earlier to help the company by ignoring an industry-wide agreement of a maximum working week of 39 hours.

Staff opted to work longer hours but in May, 1985, at the insistence of union officials, 29 activists told Mr Morris they were going to stick to the letter of the agreement. After completing 39 hours they each received a registered letter to tell them they had been sacked. Mr Morris said they had been contracted to work 41 hours.

Speaking to the media when the dispute kicked off, he said: "Everyone has the right to withdraw their labour and to go on strike. But I have the right to sack them if they do."

Senior union official Richard Leonard of GMB Scotland recalls: "What then ensued was one of the bitter-est and longest industrial disputes in the city's history. It lasted two years.

"At the root of the dispute was not a demand for higher wages but for a shorter working week.

"The national labour agreement for the furniture industry provided for a standard working week of 39 hours but in 1982 the workforce had agreed to a 41-and-a-quarter hour week as an emergency measure to help the company out. Emergency a long time over, it was time to return to the industry norm."

Strikers picketed the factory while their colleagues continued to turn up for work.

Mr Leonard said: "The sacked workers received tremendous support from local trade unionists from the print workers to the miners, from the shipyards to the Caterpillar factory.

"And Glasgow District Council and local Labour MPs got right behind them."

Union officials say the dispute ended two years later when 28 of the strikers - including nine apprentices - found jobs elsewhere, while another seven launched their own workers co-operative.

To mark the strike the GMB is involved in a special event on Saturday, March 15. Former strikers should contact Richard Leonard at GMB Scotland by emailing: Richard.Leonard@gmb.org.uk or on 0141 332 8641.

He said: "People's history, working class history is not remembered enough. Every battle for economic and social justice is one more step on the march for economic and social equality."

gordon.thomson@eveningtimes.co.uk

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