By Fred Burrill

Our second entry in the DePOT Book Symposium on Andy Clark’s Fighting Deindustrialisation: Scottish Women’s Factory Occupations, 1981-82 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2023) comes from Fred Burrill, a post-doctoral fellow at Cape Breton University in Canada who is starting a tenure-track position at the University of New Brunswick later this year. His research combines oral history with wider political economy concerns. He has published extensively, including most recently “Deindustrialization, Gender, and Working-Class Militancy in Saint-Henri, Montréal,” Labour/le travail 91 (2023), 9-34. 


Andy Clark’s first book, as expected, is chock-full of insights, provocations, and searching reflections that should challenge all of us concerned with the fate of deindustrializing communities. Analyzing what he describes as “one of the most significant periods in British histories of deindustrialisation and working-class resistance to factory closure” (4), Clark focuses on three largely successful – yet almost completely forgotten – light-industry factory occupations in central Scotland led by working-class women: Lee Jeans, in Greenock, Lovable Bra, in Cumbernauld, and Plessey Capacitors, in Bathgate. Based on extensive archival research and life-course interviews enriched by Clark’s own positionality as a locally rooted working-class scholar, the book intervenes in debates in deindustrialization studies, industrial relations, labour history, and oral history and memory. Rather than engage here in a full summary of Clark’s multifaceted intervention, I want instead to touch on several of Fighting Deindustrialisation’s key points in the form of an appreciation, a challenge, a query, and a pondering.  

First: one of the book’s main contributions is its questioning of the push in deindustrialization studies to move on and scale-up from the investigation of local working-class experiences of closure. In a field traditionally dominated by the study of male industries and masculine experiences of resistance and job loss, there is significant work left to be done to come to integrate those who are, as Clark puts it, “subjugated by their gender and their class” (155). He pushes us to return to the world of the shopfloor and demonstrates the promise of the approach by uncovering a world of gendered solidarities and community ties in the factory space that help to explain how these workers decided to occupy their plants and sustained their resistance in the face of the indifference of both capital, and in the case of Lee Jeans, their own union. The emphasis on resistance is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a field attuned to loss and long-term cultural disintegration. Further, the focus on the local complicates our desire for transnational analysis and comparisons in that the book successfully demonstrates that the “national” is a particularly wobbly construct from which to build a larger edifice: the significant differences between deindustrialization processes in these three neighbouring localities, based on their varied histories of industrial development, trouble any easy narratives about the Scottish experience in the 1980s. 

And yet – I am struck by how much of what Clark describes about the affinities of the workplace and the role of community and kinship ties in nourishing the “latent structures of collectivism” (154) that blossomed in plant occupations resonates with my own research on the Southwest of Montreal. There, working-class women labouring in light-industry factories (some of them similarly the product of inward investment by American companies) waged successful unionization campaigns in the early 1970s through an approach rooted in locality and neighbourhood organizing; they too found little of interest in their actual work but great connection in the social relations of the shopfloor.1 This suggests to me that while the local is infinite in its variety, the great social unifier of capital can’t be underestimated. If there is a drawback to the book, it is that Clark affords himself little space for analysis of the three firms’ capital flight beyond the assessments of his respondents, structured as they are by familiar themes of greed and misuse of public funds. Losing sight of capital and its workings means that historians run the risk of falling into the morally correct, although sometimes politically limited, posture of rescuing marginalized experiences. We still need to scale up, even while striving to ensure that we do so from a more complex understanding of the composition of the industrial working class. Should we instead be thinking in turns of trans-locality? Or sectorially “differentiated” pathways of deindustrialization?2 

To my query. I was thoroughly convinced by Clark’s line of argumentation with respect to the shortcomings of John Kelly’s mobilization theory and its focus on individualized notions of injustice being shepherded by strong leaders into collective action. Fighting Deindustrialisation demonstrates that the injustices experienced in Greenock, Cumbernauld, and Bathgate were layered, collective, and contextual, rooted in the workers’ gendered cultures of solidarity and experienced in dialogue with other movements and the surrounding crises of local and regional deindustrialization. I am curious, however, about Clark’s sense of how this debate has evolved since the writing of the book.  I am far from well-versed in the field of industrial relations, but conversations around mobilization theory do seem now to involve quite a bit of specific focus on factory occupations.3 Are they all basically in the Kellian mode? Where does Clark’s contribution fit into these debates? 

Lastly, a pondering (and also a final appreciation). One of the more subterranean strengths of Clark’s contribution is its close engagement with the labour process. Each of the three case-study chapters on Lee Jeans, Lovable, and Plessey describes shop-floor production in significant detail. Compared to, say, steelmaking in a similar period, where fellow DePOT member Pascal Raggi has argued that the great irony of the industry’s deindustrialization was that it happened at a moment of unprecedented advances in production techniques and safety procedures, repetitive and difficult labour was the name of the game in all three of these feminized plants.4 There is a bit of a disconnect between this careful description of labour, however, and the book’s argument about workplace solidarity and its role in fostering militant action. The point of focusing on the labour process seems to be to demonstrate that Clark’s respondents’ fond memories of the workplace are distinct from the dire nature of the work itself, protecting them from reductive accusations of “smokestack nostalgia.” Fair enough – but I would be very interested to know what more could be understood about the impact of the nuts-and-bolts organization of production on the relatively seamless switch from class-in-itself to class-for-itself described in the book. 

Fighting Deindustrialisation is a force to be reckoned with, in the image of the workers who are its protagonists and the author who brought their stories to light.