Monday, August 03, 2009

Briant Colour Printing Occupation 1972

There have been a number of recent workplace occupations by workers threatened with job losses and/or very poor redundancy deals - notably at the (ex-Ford) Visteon plants in London and Belfast, and the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. As reported yesterday, there was a short occupation of a South London children's home at the weekend.

Way back in 1972 a print shop in the Old Kent Road was the scene of an occupation for a year - and one that at least temporarily prevented the plant's closure. It ran from 21 June 1972 to 3 July 1973. The Times (24 June 1972) reported: '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'.

Apparently the workers had previously staged a 24 hour occupation in April 1971 to prevent the management sacking 60 staff, resulting in management postponing redundancies.

RandomPottins recalls that during the 1972 occupation workers used the equipment to print material in support of others strikes and struggles of the period, such as this poster for the Pentonville 5 (five dockers jailed under anti-strike legislation):

They also printed their own newsletter - there's a cover of one here showing what appears to be the gasworks on the Old Kent Road (not sure of the address of the print shop - anybody know?).

During the dispute, printers from Briant’s successsfully picketed a paper wholesalers plant in Tower Bridge Road for a month. It was owned by the Robert Horne Group of Companies – their logic was that Robert Horne - supplier of paper to Briant’s – was the chief creditor and was responsible for sending the firm into liquidation ‘The picket was very effective, reducing the flow of lorries into the factory, usually 40 to 50 a day, to one or two whose dirvers were willing to cross the picket line’ (Times 14 July 1972, 10 August 1972).

Various legal stratagems to remove the occupiers were successfully resisted. A court later heard: ‘Possession orders were obtained against seven defendants in January 1973, but they were not enforced because the liquidator feared that the enforcement would result in an industrial fracas and the destruction of valuable machinery’ (Times 28 March 1977) .

The workers ran the printing company as a going concern during the work-in which meant they were presumably able to pay themselves a wage. There were even discussions with a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, to agree a deal that would retain some kind of workers' control: ‘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’ (Times, 14.12.1972).

This deal fell through and in May 1973 the company was bought by Peter Bentley, although it seems not everybody kept their job. Then in November 1973 the new owner closed the factory, sending the 50 remaining employees redundancy notices and installing security guards to keep workers out (Nov 24 1973) .

I'm not sure if that was the end of the story - I've come across a reference to 'vicious attacks [by police] on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974' (I guess this could be an error in dating by the author). It would be interesting to know more. In 2002 there was a 30 year reunion in Clerkenwell for people who took part, but I don't know if anyone has ever written up the experience. Bill Freeman, a Communist Party activist, was a prominent figure during the occupation as 'Father of the Chapel' (the name for a printing shop steward).

The occupation led to a series of court cases about who should be responsible for paying rates on the building. Southwark Council argued in the Court of Appeal in March 1977 that the company liquidator should have paid up, but the Court rules that as the workers were in control of the factory, the company was not liable for rates (Times 28 March 1977).


Anonymous said...

Past Tense archive has a few cuttings from The Worker (July 1972) and some other clippings. Great pictures of occupiers behind the locked gates with a big sign - 'UNDE WORKERS CONTROL'.

On SPG: An article by Bill Freeman published in the Morning Star (June 15th 2002) says 'The picketed the the principal creditor Robert Hornes with the support of thousands of workers from around Britain, including thousands of dockers and the Pentonville 5. This in turn led to the first deployment of the hated Special Patrol Group'.

I've got the address on a piece of paper but it's lost in a pile somewhere. It was somewhere near or on the site of the preesnt day Land of Leather, 789-799 Old Kent Road, Peckham. But that's from memory! Will post address when found!

You could mail Bill Freeman:

Transpontine said...

Interesting, could be a pamphlet in it? Maybe with some other South London workplace occupations - not sure how many others there have been mind. I have some stuff on a 1977 Greenwich steel works occupation somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I just found my way to this post by Googling 'Briant Colour' because there is an edition of the Claimant's Union Handbook for Strikers 'Printed by Briant Colour Work in Committee' in the Women's Library collection recently acquired by LSE.

Harry said...

I remember the spelling being 'Bryant' not Briant. I worked as an NGA machine minder at the Curwen Press in Plaistow at the time and, along with a colleague compositor, organised collections among workmates to support the work-in. I believe many printers did this. Support for the work-in led to a bit of fun at Curwen. Bryant had printed its own posters to drum up support and we put a couple of these up on our factory notice boards. These were ripped down by the MD so on overtime that night my colleague and I composed and printed our own posters to replace them declaring "SUPPORT BRYANT COLOUR - FREE SPEECH FOR ALL!" These stayed up and the managers never worked out who had made them or how we did it without leaving a trace!

Unknown said...

I remember going to a rally outside the works during the occupation, which was addressed by Eric Heffer, MP.

I don't know what else was printed during this time, but I still have a copy of Tolstoy's The Slavery of Our Times, that they printed there during the occupation.

Interesting to see the poster for the Pentonville Five. I used to know one of them, Tony Merrick, who in the 90s worked as a florist, but also ran walking tours on a Charlie Chaplin theme. When I knew him he was a wrestling coach with the United Olympic Wrestling Club in Bromley, where my son went as a youngster. (Sorry, I realise I've gone off topic.)

Shaun Fenn said...

My dad, Mickey Fenn, designed the poster.

Unknown said...

I used to work in the office at Bryant Colour Print with a friend called Ray Dine, my name is Don Tovey. I lived at the Bricklayers Arms. I cant remember what year it was but around 1971/2. The company secretary would not let any of our work through without checking we had done it properly. I saw the writing on the wall and left before the lock-in. They were struggling for work and were selling things too cheaply to get work to keep the machines running. They also had a few bad debts with customers going bust on them. I think it unfair of the pickets outside of Robert Horne Paper Merchants who just supplied paper to Bryant's and expected to be paid for it otherwise they would go bust if none of their customers paid them. I ended up running my own printing company for 40 years and know how hard it us to keep them going.