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Despite Closure Threat, Timex Dispute Keeps On Ticking

July 18, 1993

DUNDEE, Scotland (AP) _ When the double-decker buses roll in and out of the Timex factory, most of the passengers wear masks or put hands over their lowered faces.

A loud, off-key chorus of voices responds with one word, over and over: ″Scab 3/8 Scab 3/8 Scab 3/8″ As each bus passes, screaming strikers scowl and point fingers, lining the block in an arm-shaking formation that resembles a ″wave″ at a baseball game.

Those who touch the buses are immediately arrested, but the others keep on yelling at the workers who took their jobs.

Such is daily life on the picket line at Timex Electronics Corp.

The nasty scene shows the taming of Britain’s militant labor unions during the Thatcher era did not take hold firmly in the struggling Tayside region of Scotland - the power base of the opposition Labor Party.

It may ultimately test whether a union that keeps up its backbone can thrive in an age when international corporations can shut factories and move their production lines across borders with relative ease.

Prime Minister John Major recently condemned the union’s behavior.

″I dare say that the jobs will be lost at Timex as a result,″ he said.

Six months into the dispute, Timex said it had gone through enough trouble and would close the plant by Christmas. Most of the strikers think management is lying to get them to work for lower wages than the $180 a week they brought home last year.

″I think it’s a bluff,″ said Wilma Reid, who worked at Timex for 28 years. ″I think really they want the pickets off the gates. We’ll be here till the lock goes on outside the gate.″

″I don’t think they’ll close it,″ agreed Jessie Britton. She’s an 11-year veteran who believes Timex is trying to scare workers into crossing the picket line by offering payments for an ″orderly closure.″

Timex would not make any executives available for comment, according to an Edinburgh public relations firm hired by the company. Timex instead issued a statement, which said, ″Local union officials have failed to grasp the reality of plant closure and again failed their own membership.″

Timex Corp., based in Waterbury, Conn., is known to most Americans for the watch that ″keeps on ticking.″ But it stopped making timepieces years ago in Dundee, an industrial town that has had its troubles adapting to the changing times.

A Timex work force of thousands was pared over the past two decades to about 400 after Timex switched to making electronic circuit boards and other components for such clients as IBM and Bang and Olufsen. Dundee is the only place where Timex has made these items and it has announced no plans to make them elsewhere.

High-tech and electronics are a big business in Scotland. A booming area dubbed ″silicon glen″ has attracted some 470 businesses - including such huge names as Digital, Compaq and Panasonic - that employ 50,000 people. Most of this work is non-union.

The battle at Timex began in December, when management said business was bad so it would have to temporarily lay off 150 workers. The Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union says it did not dispute the need for layoffs, but it wanted to ensure that the impact was spread evenly among the work force.

Timex refused. The workers struck. Timex later said the layoff time could be spread out but insisted on a pay cut of 10 percent.

Workers refused. Timex locked them out and brought in replacement workers, telling the original work force it would need to take a 27 percent pay cut to return.

Neither side would give.

The daily protest against Timex has become such a routine the strikers often can predict who will cross the picket line next.

After the buses rolled out one sunny afternoon, Mrs. Reid told a reporter to wait a few minutes to see a man who drives in every day to pick up his strikebreaking wife. Soon he drove a white car past the jeering crowd, returning minutes later with his wife.

″Scab, scab, scab,″ screamed the pickets.

Union officials, skeptical that Timex is really going to close the plant, are taking their message elsewhere, through Britain, Denmark and Germany, seeking boycotts to pressure the company.

″What can we do?″ said George Allen, who says he never was much involved with the union until he found himself locked out of a job. ″I worked 16 years and I worked hard. I will work as hard against them.″

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