Tribute to a 103-day sit-in

THEY defied their US paymasters by ­staging a marathon ­occupation in a desperate attempt to save their jobs and three decades on a commemorative structure will be erected to honour them.

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A statue is to be built to commemorate the Caterpillar workers
A statue is to be built to commemorate the Caterpillar workers

For 103 days the workforce at the closure-threatened Caterpillar plant at Tannochside, near Udding­ston, North Lanarkshire, held a sit-in willed on by the support of the Scottish ­nation and watched afar from around the world.

Union leaders and politicians tried to persuade the manufacturing giant to keep open a plant which had been operating in Tannochside since 1956 while school children gave beleaguered production workers their pocket money to pay bus fares to and from the plant's gates.

The production of giant bulldozers with their distinctive tank-style wheel tracks provided a decent wage for more than 1200 workers who formed part of Scotland's industrial landscape. But they weren't paid a penny when the sit-in began on January 14, 1987.

Every manager was locked out by angry workers who felt betrayed.

It had all been so different four months earlier when executives at Caterpillar HQ in Peoria, Illinois, announced they were to spend £62.5million on new production equipment.

That was to include the most sophisticated robotic machinery money could buy. It was to enable the Scottish site achieve significant reductions in production costs so that it would be better able to compete with its international rivals and especially the Japanese.

Another £8m was to be allocated to completely redesign the sprawling factory and train workers in the latest technologies. The bonus was the promise of a brighter future for the entire workforce with no job losses.

Christmas in 1986 was a good one and a few weeks later Caterpillar installed a robotic machine and began testing it - hours before company executives ­announced a change of plan. There would be no investment and the entire plant was to be shutdown.

Workers were distraught. Their disbelief was shared by politicians at Westminster who held an adjournment debate in Parliament. Michael Hirst, MP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, pointed out he had lots of constituents working at the factory.

Speaking at the time he said, furiously: "I am prompted to think that, at best, the senior managers at Caterpillar have been guilty of gross incompetence in the planning of their corporate strategic objectives. At worst, their conduct borders on corporate treachery."

His anger was shared by fellow politician Jimmy Hamilton. He represented Motherwell North and said a shop steward had warned him that Caterpillar had decided to axe several production sites including Tannochside.

Mr Hamilton told the Commons: "To say that I was shattered is to put it mildly. I was absolutely flabbergasted. Indeed, I thought that the shop steward was going stark raving bonkers."

Sadly not and on Sunday, April 26, - 14 weeks later - the factory occupation was called off after Caterpillar obtained an eviction order and managers were allowed through the gates the ­following day.

The US earthmoving equipment manufacturer justified the closure by claiming work carried out at Tannochside could be switched to other European production centres.

The sit-in delayed the closure. The Americans had timed it for May, 1987, but instead it was months later before the final order was completed. The plant which in its heyday had a workforce of 2700 in the late 60s fell silent on October 28 when manufacturing and an era spanning more than 30 years came to an abrupt end.

The occupation also spawned the creation of a campaign tractor dubbed The Pink Panther which had been constructed and taken to George Square. It soon became a potent symbol of the struggle and caught the public's imagination.

Rows of houses now sit on the site while some of the derelict land was transpormed into the Tannochside Business Park.

Today former Caterpillar shop steward Bob Burrows unveiled his plans for a commemorative structure 27 years on.

He's now a local councillor for the area and revealed how, now, 27 years later, a memorial is to be unveiled to the men and women who fought to save their jobs and organisers of the ceremony are appealing for former employees at the plant to attend a memorial next month.

Bob said: "I worked at Caterpillar for 14 years, latterly in the undercarriage assembly, and was a shop steward. I along with many other people fought hard to keep our jobs."

He added: "We had a 25th anniversary reunion a couple of years ago and the former workers who turned out felt there should be some kind of a memorial to the factory and the occupation.

"A local artist has come up with a design, crafted in Corian - a synthetic material - and lit with LEDs, which we feel symbolises the struggle. It has three columns representing each month of the struggle and 103 coloured inserts each representing a day of the occupation."

Caterpillar shop stewards convener John Brannan and his deputy John Gillen have already agreed to attend the unveiling along with a ­number of other guests.

Bob wants to see more there and said: "The Caterpillar occupation changed everyone's life. When I lost my job I had to be retrained and ended up providing welfare advice and spent many years as a front line debt counsellor before being elected as a councillor and now convener of finance of North Lanarkshire Council.

"We are extending an open invitation to all of the former workers to attend the ceremony. Apart from it being a reunion and a chance to catch with old friends and colleagues, it is a real opportunity to properly mark the passing of an industrial era."

The event is being held on Friday, March 7 at 2pm. The memorial is being unveiled on open land next to the Windmill Tavern just 100 yards from where the factory stood. Costs have not been disclosed but funds have come from sponsorship, the trade union movement and North ­Lanarkshire Council.

gordon.thomson@eveningtimes.co.uk

Local government

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