Remembering the Year-Long Briant Colour Printing Workers Occupation of 1972/’73

I’m currently reading All Together Now? a book by Mike Carter in which the author walks the same Liverpool to London route that his father, Pete Carter, organised in 1981 for the 300 who participated in the People’s March for Jobs. In the book, Carter chats to Chris Jones, a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University who was on the march in ’81 as a third-year student nurse and volunteer medic. During the course of their conversation, Jones discuss the strength of British industry and the power of organised labour, both still valid and vital in the early ’80s. Unemployment was something to fight against. “It was not uncommon for people to organise work-ins”, he explains. “The whole premise of a work-in was that these are our jobs and you’re not taking them. That’s gone now. The idea of our jobs. Everybody’s used to the idea now of ‘step out of line for ten seconds and it’s all going to China'” Back then employees had rights and a powerful voice that had a desire to be heard. A work-in was just one strategy, and it is one that fascinates me.

Coincidentally, today marks the forty-eight anniversary of one such work-in. On 21st June 1972, the 130 or so strong workforce of Briant Colour Printing on London’s Old Kent Road were told that the firm was going into liquidation. The print company had been set up by the Kitson family in the 19th century and had stayed in the hands of successive generations until early in 1972 when owner Timothy Kitson, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, sold the firm to Derek Synder, who installed James McNaughton, formerly of the paper merchants Robert Horne, as the company’s new Managing Director.

The workers at Briant’s were a highly organised, unionised force to be reckoned with, as the Tory Kitson had often discovered to his pain and acute embarrassment, comprising of memberships in the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). Not long after moving to the custom-built premises at 651-87 Old Kent Road in 1968, they had fought and won favourable pay and work conditions, including securing May Day as a paid holiday, and only the previous April they had successfully staged a 24 hour occupation of the plant to prevent management from making sixty staff redundant. They also came out on strike in 1971 against the Industrial Relations Bill and pledged their support to striking miners and dockers in 1972. Make no mistake, the workers at Briant’s were militant and staunch and they weren’t about to let their jobs be taken away from them without a fight.

Upon receiving the bad news on 1:45pm that June afternoon in 1972, the shop stewards, including Bill Freeman, immediately convened (some say just within a minute’s notice) their own meeting and an emphatic decision was made to fight the closure. The 130-strong staff secured the print shop for themselves and declared an occupation, or work-in’ to save their jobs. This was a strategy not unfamiliar to British industry at this time, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Fisher Bendix in Kirkby and Plessey in Alexandria had all organised occupations to protect jobs and, as I said earlier, Briant’s had already engaged in a one-day occupation the previous year. The decision to occupy was passed unanimously and Freeman was elected the industrial action’s de facto leader and chairman of the joint chapel action committee to represent all the workers. By 3pm, just one hour and fifteen minutes after being told they were being made redundant, the workers controlled the plant. Barricades were hurriedly assembled, the vulture-like liquidating directors were evicted and one manager was even held to ransom until he paid up monies owed to the work’s social club.

The decision made by the workers to occupy made far more rational sense then the decision reached by management to close. Briant’s was a modern, technologically up-to-date print shop in purpose-built premises that were less than five years old. However, the early 1970s were a time of economic recession and Briant’s had struggled along with many other industries. Prior to Kitson’s sale to Synder for a mere £27,750, they had been performing with a turn-over below capacity and with a heavy debt from the Robert Horne Group (the firm’s biggest creditor and applier of pressure for a quick sale),from which the new MD, James McNaughton had once worked. Just two months before McNaughton had served notice to the workers at Briant’s he had promised them a bright future with increased turn-over and further new equipment. In the weeks leading up to June 21st, it appeared that the MD was true to his word, with a turn-over and order book significantly up on the previous year. Small wonder then, that the workforce felt so aggrieved at this sudden turn of events; how could management be claiming the company was running at a considerable loss when the figures proved otherwise? Could the real reason for the closure have something to do with creditors Robert Horne wanting the premises for themselves? Unfortunately, during the mass eviction of management that occurred that afternoon as the workers took control, one manager had managed to give them all the slip and had secreted himself in one of the first floor offices. He was subsequently found on June 22nd, were it became clear to the workers that his duty was to ensure all financial records that could shed light on the management’s real motive for liquidation were destroyed before they discovered them for themselves.

The occupation made the news just three days later when The Times reported that “About 150 employees started the ‘work-in’ at the Briant Colour Printing company, Peckham on Wednesday after the management announced the company was going into voluntary liquidation… the workers yesterday showed their determination to stay by moving in bedding and food” in their June 24th edition. From then on, the workforce continued to independently run Briant’s as a going concern for twelve whole months until June 1973 when a new owner, Peter Bentley, was installed.

During the year-long occupation, workers established both a management and a procurement committee from the ranks themselves, enabling them to liaise with clients and suppliers to keep the business going and commercially viable whilst they sought out a prospective buyer. Talks with one such party, David Brockdorff, saw them seek a deal that would retain some kind of workers’ control which, if pulled off, would have seen a new way of co-operative working. Throughout the twelve months, Freeman’s twelve-strong action committee of shop stewards (or fathers and mothers of the chapel) would hold weekly plenary meetings. Obviously the main aim was to continue working and, to that end, workers attempted to pay themselves a wage and operated on 24 hour rosters and a three shift system, but a fifty-strong security crew was elected to defend the premises from attacks from the police and unwanted visitors, whilst management and maintenance of the plant now also consisted of ensuring there was enough food and beds to go round for each roster and shift.

Work at this new Briant’s took various forms. The protesting workforce used their skills and the equipment at hand to publish their own paper, the BCP Workers News at a run of 80,000 at periodic intervals to help spread word of their cause. They also freely printed materials for other disputes, including the Pentonville 5 (in July 1972 the workforce led the first march to Pentonville Prison in support of the five dockworkers gaoled for allegedly unlawful industrial action) and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation, which had in some ways inspired them. This support of comrades in other industry was crucial and was returned in kind with mass support for their own cause. Production on a business basis naturally continued too, with existing orders carried out and appeals made to continue to place new orders. Whilst some existing customers continued to do so, the business was further bolstered by new customers, such as trade unions and left wing organisations who were keen to pledge solidarity and who saw the appeal in using a worker-led print supplier over a management-owned one.

Throughout July and August the staff at Briant’s also picketed their outed MD McNaughton’s former employer, Robert Horne paper wholesalers plant in Tower Bridge Road, reasoning that it was they who, as chief creditors and with ulterior motives, would have them on the dole queue. The pickets proved most effective, reducing the flow of traffic from 40-50 lorries per day to just one or two whose drivers willing to cross the picket line, but it came at a price. This industrial action marked the first time that the Special Patrol Group were deployed and they remained true to their subsequent notorious character, by physically assaulting dozens of picketers. News of the attack incurred further solidarity when, the next day, the London dockers held a mass meeting that decided they too would attend the picket at Tower Bridge Road. This resulted in a mass battle between about 1000 picketers and several hundred policemen. Ultimately, with the prospect of their business being hindered, Robert Horne had no option but to meet with Freeman’s action committee to negotiate terms. In order to lift the pickets, Horne agreed to help find Briant’s a new buyer and to them new extensive credits, and to persuade the present owner to agree to transfer a substantial amount of orders to any new prospective owner of the business.

On the whole, the work-in was successful. Occasionally, the workforce had trouble paying bills, but the power was never once cut during the occupation. Services remained on at all times. Any prospective buyers of the print shop arranged to view goods and premises by the liquidators were quickly seen off by the security crew who also resisted all manner of legal tactics to remove them and terminate the occupation. Whilst possession orders were obtained, they were not enforced for fear of greater industrial strife and the wanton destruction and sabotage of the print shop’s valuable machinery. Nevertheless, thousands of writs and injunctions were served to the occupying workforce, who promptly made a bonfire out of them during demonstrations outside the law courts. However the nature of the work-in itself did take its toll on the workforce as one explained in early 1973; “At times it gets depressing, it gets extremely depressing, especially when there are not many people here, late in the day, and for people who are guarding the buildings during the night…There are a couple of people here who appear to be rather depressed all the time, and they also talk about leaving. But most people only feel like that for shorter periods, and you try to keep the spirit up. In the daytime it is ok here, but after six or seven in the evening there are only a few people here…, and you don’t know what to talk about, if nothing new has happened, everything is very slow”.

By 14th December, 1972 The Times were reporting on the prospective, worker-controlled deal being tabled by the occupiers at Briant’s and David Brockdorff; “The work-in has broken new ground by carrying into private enterprise the political basis on which the factory has been run by joint union branches. The plant will be run by a ‘management committee’ composed of representatives from three printing unions – the National Society of Operative Printers (Natsopa), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) and the National Graphical Association (NGA) – and managers put in by the new owner” Unfortunately this visionary deal ultimately came to naught, rejected by the workforce themselves because an assurance from Brockdorff that there would be no redundancies was not forthcoming.

In May 1973, Peter Bentley purchased the company and the occupation came to a close. Normal business resumed on July 3rd, 1973 but it proved to be a false dawn. Redundancies did follow, reducing the staff of 130 to just 50, and just four months later, Bentley folded the company. Despite redundancy notices going out to the remaining workforce, some day shift staff still turned up for work as normal on the morning of 17th November, only to find themselves locked out and security guards and Alsatians tasked with patrolling and protecting the premises.

Whilst many nascent critics on the right would argue that the year-long work-in at Briant’s was a failure, because it did not save jobs or the plant from closing, I would posit that it was actually a success, because, in the short term at least, it did do those things. 130 workers managed to work for a further year because of their own collective power, ensuring their families did not starve. The plant too stayed a going concern for a full year, getting to within a hair’s breadth of striking a deal that could have effectively changed the face of British industry, offering workers a glimpse of a new way beyond the capitalist status quo. Not only that, but during those twelve months of occupation, Briant’s had effectively become the unofficial print shop for all industrial struggles of the day, reminding us of the solidarity and power within unionised labour across any and all trades.

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